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To be accused of “virtue signaling” is to be tagged with insincerity, with rhetorical performance divorced from actual beliefs for the sole purpose of boosting one’s cultural standing.

It has become a common charge leveled against liberal and leftist discourse, as can be seen by a perusal of the #virtuesignal on Twitter. The goal is to muddy the conversation so we doubt the message because we should distrust the messenger or worse, we distrust all messaging.

But I wonder how figures from the past would stand up against charges of #virtuesignal?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

That Thoreau was one virtue signaling mofo, wasn’t he?

How about the guys that wrote this? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Virtue signaling up the hoo-hah! Self-evident truths? Who do these bewigged smartypants think they are?

Signaling is an inevitable component of all discourse. As a teacher of writing, the #virtualsignal trope distresses me because the first dictate of any persuasive writing in my course is the writer must believe what they say. I tell my students that providing the framework of values or opinions from which you’re coming is actually a service to readers, as it allows them to take in the subsequent message with a better understanding of the author’s position.

Sure, some signaling may seem empty, or purely performative, such as politicians ending every speech with “God bless the United States of America” or those formerly ubiquitous “LiveStrong” bracelets.

But to suggest all public rhetoric is merely performance is to descend into a kind of cynicism that makes any genuine exchange of views impossible. Count me in the camp of Jane Coaston writing in the New York Times who suggests an opposite take on virtue signaling, when people say things, we best take them at their word. 

This is why I find President Trump’s words following the death of Heather Heyer at the hands of white supremacist terrorist[1] using his car as a weapon so important.

In an occasion tailor made for performative virtue signaling, when even Mike Huckabee can figure out how to condemn white supremacy, Trump merely condemned violence coming from “many sides.”

Marco Rubio, not necessarily known as a paragon of political courage managed to give a pretty clear signal:



Why is it so difficult for the President of the United States?

The White House affirmed the original “many sides” message later to NBC’s Hallie Jackson:




Another reporter received the same response form a “senior White House official”:



One group was pleased with President Trump’s messaging, the neo-Nazis at The Daily Stormer:



Because we should read rhetoric as sincere, particularly rhetoric coming out of the most powerful office in the country, until otherwise informed it’s fair to assume that President Trump at least tacitly condones white supremacist ideology. This is what the white supremacists believe, anyway.

None of this is mysterious. As has been pointed out by many others, the Trump Administration is home to those who are at least sympathetic to white supremacy (Steve Bannon), as well as others who are overt white supremacists, such as the man apparently under consideration for communication director, Stephen Miller, and deputy assistant to the president, Sebastian Gorka, who appears to be of the Nazi-sympathizer ilk. 

Frankly, at this point, I’d take a little insincere virtue signaling that manages to not draw a false equivalence between white supremacists and those who combat white supremacy, but as of yet, the White House hasn’t managed even this. Their unattributed Sunday statement saying that the president “condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred” which “of course” covers white supremacists, the KKK, etc…creates a given (Trump disavows white supremacists) that assumes facts not in evidence, certainly not as long as figures like Bannon, Miller, and Gorka are in his administration.

The attacks on voting rights, the altering of a program meant to combat extremism so it applies only to Islamic terrorism, are signals of their own as to where the Trump Administration focus lies.

And ultimately, for all the signs that even his cabinet and advisors are treating President Trump as someone who should be some combination of indulged and ignored, he is the president. As reported by the New York Times, Trump, “consulted a broad range of advisors before speaking,” and “listened attentively,” but “repeatedly steered the conversation back to the breakdown of ‘law& order’ and the responsibility of local officials to stem the violence.”

The buck stopping elsewhere has been a chief hallmark of the Trump presidency thus far. Not my fault, someone else’s problem seems to be President Trump’s guiding ethos. The message he is sending must be viewed as sincere and deliberate.

Those quick to charge others with virtue signaling would like us to believe nothing matters, it’s all a big game, but I hope we remember that the opposite is true, that everything matters, most especially the words of the president of the United States.






[1] Am I guilty of virtue signaling by identifying the perpetrator as a “white supremacist terrorist?” I believe the statement accurate. An individual attending a rally organized to express white supremacist ideology can be identified as a white supremacist. Someone who deliberately runs a car into a crowd of people in an effort to intimidate in pursuit of political aims is a terrorist.

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