In the midst of our current stagnation and exhaustion from the recent election, I keep returning to something President Trump said back in 2016: “I’m a conservative, but at this point who cares? We’ve got to straighten out the country.”
Whatever one thinks about President Trump and conservatism, it seems clear that the last four years have given a new kind of direction and even encouragement for conservative thought and practice. While I do not want to equate “conservative principles” with “Donald Trump,” I do think Trump’s presidency has been a catalyst for renewed reflection upon national conservatism. Along with this, I would say there is a real possibility of a revitalized coalition bringing together conservatives and liberals. As the political philosopher Yoram Hazony recently argued:
Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: either they will submit to the Marxists, and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.
In this light, I want to briefly call to mind two areas in particular where Trump’s presidency has been a condition leading to a renewed and deeper reflection upon national conservatism, and how this might also be an aid in joining together conservatives and liberals.
First, it is no longer disputable that identity politics has become secured within the platform of the Democratic Party. By this, it is not meant that identity politics has become a part of a larger whole that makes up various interests on a broad spectrum within the party. Rather, it is now self-evident that the term “Democratic Party” is synonymous with “identity politics.” If one is to claim allegiance to the Democratic Party, he or she must first confess identity politics as one’s savior. As Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule rightly points out, identity politics is a form of “sacramental liberalism” writ large.
As Joshua Mitchell has convincingly shown in his recently published American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Times, the core framework of identity politics is a mutilated religious worldview grounded in transgression and stain. Salvation comes when oppressive groups (i.e., the white heterosexual male) offer the sin of their impure identities as an act of atonement. In return, a currency of political credit will be given to such individuals, wherein they can be seen as “just.” Talk of climate change or racial and gender justice are the official religious hymns of the Democratic party.
There are many visible signs of this, but we should consider the mainstream media’s commentary on the night of the election as a pertinent example. One of the most telling representations was the commentary offered by Van Jones at CNN. For Jones, the possibility of Joe Biden winning a political victory was not going to be enough. What was needed on election night was a complete repudiation of Donald Trump. It is worth hearing Jones in his entirety:
I think a lot of Democrats are hurt tonight. I think there is a lot of hurt out there. There is a moral victory and there is a political victory, and they are not the same thing. The political victory still may come. But I think people who saw images of babies being snatched away from mothers at the border, for parents who are sending their kids to school where the “N” word is now being used against them. People have seen this wave of intolerance. They wanted a moral victory tonight. They wanted to see a repudiation of this direction of the country. And the fact that it’s this close, it just hurts.
Even with what seems to be a Biden victory, there was a universally palatable sense that the political left had been given a substantive moral and cultural defeat.
In addition to this solidifying of the reign of identity politics within the Democratic Party, the last four years has provided an opening towards a renewed and more wholesome love of the American nation. This love of one’s own upholds the American republic as unique, while not banging the drum of the more remote Republican mantra of “American exceptionalism.” This worn-out notion was certainly considered to be part of the political right’s rhetoric following George W. Bush’s second inauguration.
Having still been somewhat seduced by the “end of history” dialectic of 1989, many on the right (and the left) believed that exporting liberal democracy across the globe is univocal with political peace and economic prosperity. Trump’s public policy principles effectively undermined this dream, and encouraged a more moderate nationalism that principally refused to spread democracy across the globe via the American military.
While this second point was witnessed in Trump’s foreign policy aims, it was perhaps the recent post-election rallies that were more indicative of what love of one’s country could feasibly look like. The recent gatherings in support of President Trump were not only without violence and destruction, they were often robust civic expressions that love of one’s homeland is fundamental to human flourishing. Loving one’s country appears to be something Americans can joyfully practice and think about once again.There are those whose national love is disordered, and we would be rightly faulted for dismissing or overlooking such an error. Yet, we must not forget here the stronghold of identity politics, which dangles before democratic citizens the claim that the American republic is a nation that, in principle, we cannot love.
The 2020 election has undoubtedly been disorienting. At the heart of political realism and a theological account of the political order is the recognition that politics does not, and can never, encompass the whole of human life. The absolutization of politics is the first sign of despotism, and it is the very core of identity politics. The need to “straighten out the country” entails simultaneously rejecting the stronghold of identity politics as religion and affirming a moderate civic nationalism that is essential to true human flourishing. This civic reality has the potential of bringing together conservatives and liberals in a new way.
Let’s hope that Yoram Hazony’s prediction is right.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!