Peggy Noonan, Kamala Harris, and the right wing style police telling Black leaders to stay in their place


Kamala Harris campaigns and moves to the beat in the rain. Photo credit: Kamala Harris, Twitter.

Highly sought after conservative columnist and television personality Peggy Noonan had a few thoughts after the final presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Though her latest column in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal was headlined to be a commentary on the debate and the state of the race, it's a particularly salty passage on Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris that is drawing the most attention. Noonan assails Harris's happy warrior persona on the campaign trail as undignified and unbecoming of a candidate running to be a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land. She finds Harris's "giddiness" on the campaign trail, her laugh, and especially her on-beat dancing in the rain to be "insubstantial, frivolous," and "embarrassing."

Is Noonan's ire for Kamala Harris just representative of conservative sphincter tightening? Is it just an issue about an image they hold in their minds about how a candidate for president or vice president should model the gravity of the offices they are running for? Is it just longing for candidates with conventional demeanor?

In the face of criticism that Noonan's attacks on Harris were racist and sexist (yes, we're all aware that Noonan is a woman, thank you), a defense along those lines is certainly what her fans will point to. But is such a defense plausible? Is Noonan really just tired of what she brands as unserious nature of the campaign trail and thirsty for a more small-c conservative demeanor?

Let's find out.

No one has been a less "conventional" candidate on the stump than Donald Trump. No one has been a less serious candidate on the trail than Donald Trump. No one has refused to accept the gravity of the highest office in the land than Donald Trump. And not just for the current campaign, but in the modern history of the United States.

So the current president's brass-knuckle style, riling crowds up about locking up political opponents, and awkward dance moves must have made conservative style-critic Peggy Noonan at least as upset as Harris's moves to Mary J. Blige’s "Work That"? Right?

Well, not quite. 

Noonan writes that Trump's abrasive style is to his benefit, because it makes him appear 'normal' rather than what Noonan terms as Biden's government-vocabulary informed by his extensive time in public service. "Mr. Trump’s power, recovered Thursday night, is to speak like normal people." She even wishes that Trump's competitor for the oval office, Joe Biden, would do the same.

So for Donald Trump, being an abrasive liar in a supposedly folksy way is an asset. When Trump doesn't fit the mold of what is traditionally presidential, even if it's by being offensive, that's just him acting like a normal person. But for Kamala Harris, acting like a normal person - laughing, saying "whassup!", and dancing in the rain - is undignified, unbecoming, and unserious.

I think it's clear by now that Noonan's view of Kamala Harris's history-making campaign and campaign style isn't really about a form of 'dignity' and 'gravity' she believes is owed to the American people by those who seek the most powerful offices. It's about a premise that white men's departure from tradition is an asset, whereas a Black woman's is a liability. More to the point, white men in leadership positions are to be celebrated for their indignant norm-breaking, but Black women in leadership must remember their place.

All of this is pretty reminiscent of right-wing faux outrage over President Obama's tan suit and his sitting posture at the Oval Office resolute desk despite the fact that white presidents had done the same and more. It's all too familiar to those of us who remember Republicans style-policing Michelle Obama over wearing gorgeous, sleeveless dresses.

Noonan's criticism of Kamala Harris's campaign style, it turns out, is entirely consistent with a long line of right wing thought-policing that insists that Black people and Black leaders are being "disrespectful" to the country - white people's country - by doing what white people and white people in power are celebrated for doing. Fragile whiteness is threatened when Black people and other people of color do something that is seen as too bold.

Noonan appears to have found her privilege threatened by a brilliant, inspiring, Black and Indian woman with an infectious laugh and a perfect beat.

That's too bad.