Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University (where he taught from 1995 to 2008), a former U.S. naval officer and Foreign Service officer, a former senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of over a dozen books on politics, international affairs, statescraft, intellectual history, and current events. Those books include Modern France, Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century, While Others Build, No Victory, No Peace, The Character of Nations, and The Ruling Class. He has written for a numerous publications, including Commentary, Foreign Affairs, National Review, Intercollegiate Review, and The New Republic, and his op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
Dr. Codevilla, who is a Catholic, recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report about recent political events in the United States, the “Ruling Class” versus the “Country Class”, the current national character of the U.S., the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the ongoing assault on the family and moral truth, the ten commandments of secular religion, and the serious challenge of radical Islam.
CWR: While some political observers have apparently been surprised by the rise of Donald Trump, the appeal of Bernie Sanders, and the anti-Establishment mood, your 2010 book The Ruling Class indicated that something like this was almost inevitable. You wrote, for instance, that “the Ruling Class and the Country Class has overwhelmed [the division] between Republicans and Democrats.” How would you define and describe these two classes?
Angelo Codevilla: The ruling class are society’s “ins.” This class comprises persons in government, those who depend for their livelihoods on government, and whose socio economic prospects and hopes are founded on government. Thus it includes most people in the educational establishment, the media, and large corporations. Its leading elements and its major voting constituencies are the Democratic party. But It transcends political parties because any number of Republicans aspire to its privileges and share its priorities.
Above all, the ruling class defines itself by a set of attitudes, foremost of which is contempt for those outside itself. This contempt stems from the rather uniform education that the ruling class’s members absorbed from universities and which they developed by living in their subculture. Believing themselves intelligent apostles of scientific truth, they regard others as dumb and in the grip of religious obscurantism. Religion is the greatest of the divides between the ruling class and those it deems its inferiors. Whereas they believe themselves morally good and psychologically sound, they regard others as suffering from psychological dysfunctions and phobias—effectively as bad people. The ruling class does not believe that those outside itself have the right or capacity to conduct their own lives.
The “country class” is the term used in British-American discourse since the 17th century to describe society’s “outs.” The rest of us. Lots more people—quite heterogeneous. Though for reasons heterogeneous and often internally inconsistent, more than two thirds of this class is resentful of the ruling class.
CWR: How would you summarize what has transpired politically over the past year or so?
Codevilla: Since 2010, the consciousness of the bitter opposition between these two parts of America has sharpened. By 2014 it was clear to many (including myself) that the Republican Party had discredited itself as the alternative to the ruling class. The country was hungry for someone to stand up to its rulers. It was clear to me that whoever seized the role of defender of the “outs” against the bad management and contempt o the “ins” would sweep aside opposition. One could only speculate about the quality and character of such persons movements. Ted Cruz had been the only one to take on that role. No one, including myself, imagined that it could be seized by a soulless buffoon like Trump.
CWR: In your 2009 book The Character of Nations, you go into quite a bit of detail about the Establishment and its hostility toward traditional structure and beliefs. In analyzing the roots of this situation you state that “all modern regimes increasingly resemble ancient rather than medieval ones.” What are some ways in which ancient and modern regimes are similar, and how do they differ from medieval regimes?
Codevilla: Ancient regimes were intellectually and morally self contained. They themselves were their own frame of reference for good and evil, better and worse. Their gods were the gods of the city or of the empire. When they worshiped those gods, they essentially worshiped themselves. There was no difference between politics, religion, and society. Hence, there was no basis for individual freedom. The closest to ancient polities in our time, prior to, say, the last forth years or so, was Japan—the world’s largest tribe.
Christianity, which gave medieval regimes their character, which character endured in the Western world up until recent decades, revolutionized life by recognizing each individual’s direct relationship to God—the creator of the universe, the essence of goodness, and hence the one and only standard of right and wrong. This, including Jesus’s mandate to separate duties to God and to Caesar, made it possible for life in the West to be lived on several independent levels. This is (or was) our charter of freedom. As Luther put it: “Be on you knees before God, that you may stand on your feet before men.”
Modern regimes, by denying the existence of God and his laws have, once again, placed their own human authority beyond any challenge but by power. Collapsing the distinction between freedom and power quite simply destroys the autonomy of individuals and of society—hence of freedom.
CWR: You reiterate the point that liberal democracies are more apt to change their character than other regimes. How would you describe the “character” of the United States in 2016? And what have been the most significant changes to our country’s character over the past two or three decades?
Codevilla: Plato and Aristotle had made clear that any society’s political arrangements—who and what is honored or denigrated—reflect its character, and that when those arrangements change, so does that character. The character of any democracy is neither more nor less than the character of its demos at any given time. The United States of America’s distinctive character was obvious to anyone stepping off a ship in de Tocqueville’s time as it was to anyone arriving here up to, say, fifty years ago: a nation equally God-fearing and free.
This will serve as a contrast between the America that was and the one that has followed. In 1974, it having become clear that president Richard Nixon had lied in his denial of involvement in the coverup of a minor crime, Senator Barry Goldwater—representing his party—informed him that his party would not defend him against impeachment. By contrast, in 1998, after President Bill Clinton had perjured himself on national television and been impeached, his party prevented his conviction by smearing the prosecutor, the witnesses against him, and by belittling the crime itself.
In today’s America, right and wrong, better and worse, have become mere appurtenances of partisanship and power.
CWR: How has “family” been redefined by the Ruling Class? And what does that signal for the immediate future, both culturally and politically?
Codevilla: In the common sense of humanity, and hence in dictionaries, the word “family” is defined by biology as augmented by marriage (which is a mingling of biologies) and adoption. The very essence of Progressivism’s many forms is to imagine and to treat individuals as if they existed without irrevocable biological connections—as neither son nor daughter, husband or wife, father or mother. Progressivist regimes—ours no different from that of Sweden or the Soviet Union—demand that we regard all human relationships as the result of revocable choices. All, except the relationship between each and every individual and the regime itself. That, we are to consider our parent, our spouse, our progeny.
The inescapable consequence of this—above all in America—is that people sort themselves out between those who choose to live according to nature and others who choose to live according to the regime. Especially when young men and women come together, the differences between the prospect of living according to nature and according to Progressivists prescriptions imposes itself. The answers to the question “what are we to each other?” are so different.
Logically, the biggest political divides in America are between those who go to church and are married and the unchurched and unmarried.
CWR: Many who support Trump and Sanders say they do so because they believe those two candidates are “anti-Establishment”. What do you think about that stance?
Codevilla: Unless one is part of the ruling class or aspires to being part of it, he is forced to admit that our rulers have not done well by America. It would be surprising were “anti Establishmentarianism” not the cri du jour. Both Trump and Sanders however, each in his own way, are fraudulent versions of it.
Sanders merely reproaches the Democratic Party’s Establishment for not taking its own rhetoric to its logical conclusions. Hence his message has a measure of integrity despite the fact that what he would give America is not just more of the same that has chocked it, but much more of it.
Trump’s opportunism and fraudulence have proved to be masterly. Resentment, not to say hate, of the ruling class has been concentrated in the Republican electorate, and on Republican officials. There is no ambiguity about this sentiment’s substance. And yet, Trump’s campaign avoided substance and simply outbid all others in its vehemence. What his agenda may be is another matter.
In sum, the voters’ anti-ruling class sentiment was hijacked by persons who have marshaled a substantial amount of energy to override what few constitutional restraints remain in our republic for the sake of substantive measures unknown but that are most likely to enhance the ruling class’s powers.
CWR: Do you that Trump’s triumph as the GOP candidate essentially signals the end of the Republican Party? Do you think a third party has any chance of gaining traction in the near future?
Codevilla: The country has been clamoring for some kind of political vehicle for opposing the ruling class. The Republican Party has shown that it is not capable of fulfilling that function. Its leaders no longer have a following. The sooner it goes the way of the Whigs, the better.
CWR: You conclude The Character of Nations by positing that the great divide in our country is essentially religious in character. What are the essential beliefs of the “new, secular religion”? Is Christian belief in the U.S. robust enough to withstand the assaults and to reestablish an order based on natural law and authentic piety?
Codevilla: These seem to be the secular religion’s commandments:
1. Science is the only authority, and we are its prophets. For all practical purposes, Science R-us. Thou shalt have no other sources of authority beside us.
2. Thou shalt neither speak nor think anything that besmirches our authority or honor. Whatever we deem inconvenient to us is politically incorrect, and shall be punished.
3. Dishonor all that diminishes our authority: father, mother, husband, wife, any notion of “nature.”
4. Every day is like every other day. It is forbidden to waste time thinking about whence you came and whither you are going.
5. For yours and for society’s convenience, you may make categories that allow you to kill those whom you place within them.
6. Everything belong to all. But the use of any thing belongs to whomever can exclude others from using it.
7. Copulate as you may, and count it as the charter of your freedom and worth.
8. Speak as seems best to serve your interests.
9. Do what you can to put yourself in position to do unto your neighbor before he does unto you.
10. Grovel before your superior, step on your subordinate.
Is Christian belief in America strong enough to overcome this? Solzhenitsyn reminds us that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. It also seems to run down the middle of institutions. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has elements of stour piety, and of whoredom to power. Thus it has ever been.
CWR: Turning to international affairs, what is your assessment of the West’s engagement with radical Islam? What needs to be done, in your opinion, to effectively counter and defeat ISIS and like-minded groups?
Codevilla: The fact that a small number of persons of low-to-abysmal achievement have been able to hold in thrall the producers of 80% of the world’s GDP and the heirs to the word’s civilizations convicts the latter of terminal unworthiness to hold the positions authority that they hold.
Destroying, utterly eradicating, not only ISIS but the Wahabbi establishment that is its ideological matrix and financial support requires no more than the realization that it is meet, right, and salutary to do so. If we can’t manage that, we deserve the consequences.
CWR: Finally, what aspects of Catholic thought and teaching need to be better emphasized and taught in order to help in the restoration of the spiritual, cultural, and political foundations of our Republic?
Codevilla: Saint John Paul II, with the help of his associate Cardinal Ratzinger, left us the excellent Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no need for more.
There is much need for much less of their successors’ confession of others’ sins, and of their shameless attempts to ingratiate themselves with the secular religion’s high priests.
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