Nearly everyone, it appears, is “shocked” and “stunned” by the election of Donald Trump. Frankly, I can understand people being a bit surprised, but those who are shocked probably need to revisit their understanding of the current situation and reevaluate their trust in the polling and punditing experts. A good example of the shocked smart set is Paul Krugman, the economist and longtime columnist for The New York Times who, as it became clear that Trump was going to emerge victorious last night, posted a piece titled “Our Unknown Country”. He wrote:
What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous.
We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.
We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.
The remarkable thing about Krugman’s bewildered, floundering lament is how he unwittingly doubles down on the very things that completely cloud his ability to understand the current situation. And, to be fair, I’ve seen some of the same cluelessness on the other side of the political spectrum.
Before I continue, however, I should emphasize a couple of key qualifiers. First, I am not trying to make a case for Trump—in fact, I did not vote for either Trump or Clinton (but I did vote, thank you)—but am seeking to analyze and understand how and why he won, with an eye toward the situation for serious (that is, orthodox) Catholics going forward. Secondly, I know my view of politics and the political landscape in the United States is likely to frustrate a few readers, in part because I tend to be both more optimistic and more pessimistic than many folks, which I will try to explain in what follows.
Back to Krugman, whose anguish captures, I think, the general mood among those who supported Hillary (or at least rejected Trump in absolute terms): “There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label.”
The battle here between self pity and lack of self awareness is entertaining, I suppose, but also revealing. It is exactly what we should expect from The Ideologue, who cannot comprehend that people might disagree with him, might see reality differently than he does, and who cannot fathom the need to actually engage with the perspective of such, well, deplorables. As it so happens, the inimitable Anthony Esolen has penned a piece for Crisis today that explains the nature of the ideologue:
When the ideologue retires to his bedroom, he does not examine his conscience. There’s nothing to examine, since ideology keeps its “sins” external. If you accept all that the ideology demands, you are justified, and you will do unto others only what they deserve, and if it is any less than what they deserve, you can mark that up to your clemency. The ideologue examines, or rather exercises surveillance over, other people’s smallest words and deeds.
For Krugman and Company, the sins of America are summed up in words such as “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia”—words that I’ve taken from the recent report “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties”, which was part of a briefing before the US Commission on Civil Rights in September. As Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, stated so well in response: “In a pluralistic society, there will be institutions with views at odds with popular opinion. The Chairman’s statement suggests that the USCCR does not see the United States as a pluralistic society.” That is surely correct. Krugman and like-minded progressives—and that includes Hillary Clinton—do not really believe in or defend an authentic pluralism.
“Progressivism”, in fact, is quite contrary to a robust pluralism precisely because it is ideological, coercive, and ultimately opposed to traditional truths about family, religion, society, sexuality, and a host of other interrelated matters. Such “progressivism” is finally and vigorously anti-life and anti-family; it either openly professes or openly acts as if this temporal life is the only life we have. Thus, in short, politics becomes the meaning and purpose of all things, for there is no longer a vertical dimension to be honored, but simply a horizontal dimension to be controlled. Thus, as Fulton Sheen noted in 1931 in Old Errors and New Labels, birth control “is a glorification of the means and a contempt of the end; it says that the pleasure which is a means to the procreation is good, but the children themselves are no good.”
Now, this election was about many things—immigration, terrorism, “Obamacare”, the economy, and so forth—but it was also, in so many key ways, about sex. It was about the ongoing battle over the nature of marriage, which is very much about the meaning and place of sex; it was about homosexuality and “gay rights”; it was about gender theory; it was about forcing women religious to pay for contraception; it was about abortion. I would go so far to say that many pundits, in insisting this election was about personalities and not policies, failed to see it was often about public and private pathologies. Trump was rightly lambasted for his crude remarks about women, but Clinton was praised for “evolving” on marriage (recall that it was just a dozen years ago that she was defending real marriage on the Senate floor). Trump was properly chastised for rude comments toward the disabled, but Clinton was lauded for supporting the right to dismember and destroy the unborn. Trump was mocked for being thrice married, but Hillary was given props for covering for her husband, a man whose known and alleged actions in the realm of lust are what we expect of rock stars and Hollywood slime, if not outright criminals.
Which brings me to a simple point: so many of those who voted for Trump are sick of the hypocritical lecturing and pious pontificating of what Angelo Codevilla (himself a staunch critic of both candidates) calls “the ruling class”. (Again, I am not defending, but explaining.) I have many acquaintances and good friends who voted for Trump; I have discussed these matters at length with them. (And, I should note, I have upset more than a couple with my refusal to vote for Trump.) On the whole, they loathe the amoral arrogance of these self-appointed rulers; they are sick of being called “backward” and “narrow-minded” for upholding traditional beliefs about marriage and sex; they are tired of being labeled “bigoted” and “hateful” for holding to commonsense views about what it means to be a man and a woman.
It was Clinton, you’ll recall, who decided to be “grossly generalistic” in giving a speech in early September, saying that “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” I am convinced that while many who voted for Trump did so reluctantly—with their noses plugged, as some would put it—they recognized full well that Clinton was not just speaking about ardent Trump supporters. No, she (as President Obama also did in various contexts) was speaking about Americans who hold to traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality, and who have legitimate (if not always fully formed) concerns about illegal aliens, the nature of Islam, and the state of race relations. Throwing in “racist” was a nice touch, because while there are undoubtedly racists among some right-wingers, it is the left that has perfected the art of race-baiting and reverse racism. The key point, however, is that the ideologues of the left are so deeply enamored of their tidy narrative about the unwashed masses they failed to grasp that the masses were finally ready to abruptly wash their hands of them.
Many middle-class Americans may not be politically “sophisticated” as the ruling class deems “sophistication”, but they are not fools. When they were told that Trump was not likable, they wondered, “Compared to Hillary?” When told Trump was arrogant, they asked, “Compared to Obama?” When lectured about Trump’s crudity and corruption, they retorted, “Compared to Bill, Hillary, and Company?” Informed that Trump was a charlatan, they responded, “Compared to the ‘Catholic’ Kaine?” When told Trump was a jerk and a hack, they marveled, “And what are Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi?” Educated on the authoritarian and heavy-handed nature of Trump, they roll their eyes: “Compared to the current Administration?” Frankly, in hindsight, I am surprised this out-of-the-blue “revolution” (if that is the right word) didn’t happen earlier.
Over at National “Catholic” Reporter, a certain writer anguishes that, in light of the shocking election results, “as a proud representative voice of the Catholic and political left, it is clear as day that the political left has lost the ability to explain itself to a majority of the American people.” He fails to understand that no one has the ability to explain confusion and contradiction in a cogent and compelling manner, save by skewering and slandering. The Catholic left is best understood as Catholics who have left faith and morals behind, but still insist on being “a devout Roman Catholic.” It is orthodox Catholics and like-minded Christians, who don’t take their orders from politicians or get their principles from parties, who can offer some measured perspective—first and foremost because they believe Jesus Christ is still and always will be King of kings and Lord of lords, reigning over all of creation, ready and able to impart both perfect justice and healing mercy to those who would escape their ideological prisons and come into the light.
With that in mind, I now voice my agreement with Rod Dreher’s statement that
politics can’t fix what ails us. I believe that the erosion of our religious liberties will probably cease for the time being under Trump (and for that, thanks be to God), but the deep currents in society and culture are towards atomization and the abandonment of religious belief and tradition.
Exactly right. And so I am of two minds. I am heartened, to a certain but real degree, that many Americans have pushed back against the culture of politically-correct poison and death. But I do not really think we are on the cusp of a brighter day, a greater America, or even a future of endlessly expanding economic growth. All the happy talk about “coming together” and “being united” is not just talk, it is mostly smoke from the well-oiled machine of American politics. President Obama, in his speech this morning, said we “are all on the same team” and likened politics to an “intramural scrimmage”. I suppose that holds some water, since some Americans take sports far more seriously than even religion, but it glosses over the simple fact that ideology is still very much alive, and it is still very much about power. Period.
This election has been deemed “historic” and I don’t dispute it in terms of modern American history. But I don’t think we really live in unprecedented times; or, if we do, it is simply because all times are unprecedented. Having recently led a Bible study through 1 and 2 Chronicles and now leading a study of Ezekiel, I am mindful that the ebb and flow of nations, the strengths and weakness of leaders, the temptations and trials of societies, are as ancient as human nature and human failing. A constant theme in Ezekiel is the necessity of worshiping God and setting aside idols: “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ez 14:6). Perhaps God is an idolophobe. Or perhaps we are still too enamored of false gods. I vote for the latter.
“Under God,” Russell Kirk wrote is in his classic book The Roots of American Order (1991, third edition), “the will of the people ought to prevail; but many liberals and democrats ignore that prefatory clause.” We love the will of the people but aren’t always too keen on the will of God. Kirk also noted that the great Orestes Brownson (1803-76), who became a Catholic “midway in life”, fought numerous “intellectual battles” in his day. Among them was a defense of natural rights (or natural law), the abuse of power by majorities, “an aggressive individualism”, a “sentimentality…which mistook a misty-eyed compassion for Justice”, a fight for true justice “against a smug secularism”, and the growing chaos of sectarianism—a “chaos of cults which diminished the teaching authority of the Christian Church.” Sound familiar? Kirk then notes this unsurprising fact: “Brownson’s was a lonely labor.” It continues, overall, to be a lonely labor, and it most likely will continue to be so.
Finally, while I do hope and pray that Mr. Trump will exhibit an unusual wisdom in facing the many challenges before him and our country, I have my doubts. I am reminded of Chesterton’s warning against wishing to have a “practical man” who will come along and “go in and clear up the mess.” The problem, Chesterton argues, is that such a man lacks a clear philosophy—not merely intuition, but a principled way of understanding and seeing the world. Such a practical man, wrote Chesterton,
will doubtless appear, one of the unending succession of practical men; and he will doubtless go in, and perhaps clear up a few millions for himself and leave the mess more bewildering than before; as each of the other practical men has done. The reason is perfectly simple. This sort of rather crude and unconscious person always adds to the confusion; because he himself has two or three different motives at the same moment, and does not distinguish between them. A man has, already entangled hopelessly in his own mind, (1) a hearty and human desire for money, (2) a somewhat priggish and superficial desire to be progressing, or going the way the world is going, (3) a dislike to being thought too old to keep up with the young people, (4) a certain amount of vague but genuine patriotism or public spirit, (5) a misunderstanding of a mistake made by Mr. H. G. Wells, in the form of a book on Evolution.
When a man has all these things in his head, and does not even attempt to sort them out, he is called by common consent and acclamation a practical man. But the practical man cannot be expected to improve the impracticable muddle; for he cannot clear up the muddle in his own mind, let alone in his own highly complex community and civilisation. For some strange reason, it is the custom to say of this sort of practical man that “he knows his own mind”. Of course this is exactly what he does not know. He may in a few fortunate cases know what he wants, as does a dog or a baby of two years old; but even then he does not know why he wants it. And it is the why and the how that have to be considered when we are tracing out the way in which some culture or tradition has got into a tangle.
What we need, as the ancients understood, is not a politician who is a business man, but a king who is a philosopher.
Krugman, in concluding his revelatory lament, wrote: “I don’t think it’s self-indulgent to feel quite a lot of despair.” Once again, he is wrong; it is indeed self-indulgent, for he is simply indulging himself. But despair is the only thing an ideologue can feel when it smashes up against reality. There is much reality to be faced. We must not despair, but trust—not in business men, or princes, or pundits, but in God alone.