David Brooks takes stock of how radically Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party. He’s reviewing Trump’s speech to Congress. Excerpt:
The first thing we learned was that Trumpism is an utter repudiation of modern conservatism. For the last 40 years, the Republican Party has been a coalition of three tendencies. On Tuesday, Trump rejected or ignored all of them.
There used to be Republican foreign policy hawks, people who believed that it was in America’s interest to serve as a global policeman, actively preserving a democratic world order. Trump explicitly repudiated this worldview, drawing instead a sharp distinction between what’s good for America and what’s good for the rest of the world.
There used to be social conservatives, who believed that the moral fabric of the country had been weakened by secularism and the breakdown of the family. On Tuesday, Trump acted as if this group didn’t exist. He didn’t mention a single social issue — abortion, religious liberty, marriage, anything. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Finally, there used to be fiscal hawks who worried about the national debt. Trump demolished these people, too, vowing a long list of spending programs and preservation of entitlement programs.
The Republicans who applauded Trump on Tuesday were applauding their own repudiation. They did it because partisanship is stronger than philosophy, but also because Reagan conservatism no longer applies to current reality.
That last clause is especially important. Trump became the GOP nominee, and took over the Republican Party in a revolution from below because the GOP leadership had little more to offer than the same old Reaganism it has been reheating for 25 years. Do you realize that there are as many years between the time Reagan left office and Trump was sworn in as there was between Eisenhower’s inauguration’s and Reagan’s? The Republicans coasted on Reaganism for a very long time. Trump instinctively sensed that the House That Reagan Built was riddled with termites, and wouldn’t stand if it was given a shove. He was right.
George W. Bush’s calamitous war in Iraq destroyed the eagerness of Americans to serve as the world’s policeman. The fact that average Americans have fallen farther behind, and more economically insecure, while most of the economic gains of the past decades have accrued to the top of the economic pyramid has disillusioned many about the virtues of Reagan free-market ideology (which, note well, was absorbed into the Democratic Party by Bill Clinton, as Thatcherite economic neoliberalism was absorbed into the Labour Party by Tony Blair). As for social conservatism, that’s complicated, but I think it’s mostly a matter of most people not believing in it anymore, except in a nominal sense, and of people prioritizing other concerns. It’s hard to stay focused on marriage and abortion when you’re 50 years old and facing the loss of your job — and, given your age, possibly the permanent loss of employment. It’s hard to care about religious liberty when you don’t go to church, or do go, but see church as mostly a place to get a pep talk to lift you up for the week to come.
So, Reaganism is dead, but is Trumpism a coherent replacement? Brooks points out that Trump grasped that in this time of enormous flux, people want a strong government to give them some shelter from the forces disrupting the stability of their lives. Yet, says Brooks, some of Trump’s own policy proposals would introduce more instability into the lives of his voters. (And, he might have added, the Trump proposal for a massive increase in defense spending appears to contradict his stated view that America ought to draw down its military presence globally.)
The answer to the insufficiency and contradictions of Trumpism cannot be an I-told-you-so reversion to Reaganism. So what should government try to do? Brooks:
Human development research offers a different formula: All of life is a series of daring adventures from a secure base. If government can create a framework in which people grow up amid healthy families, nurturing schools, thick communities and a secure safety net, then they will have the resources and audacity to thrive in a free global economy and a diversifying skills economy.
I can buy that, but I wonder how government can create that framework. Observe that he’s not saying “if government can create healthy families,” etc. I may be parsing this too closely, but I don’t think Brooks believes that government can create these things directly — and in that, he’s right — but what government can do is to create an environment in which civil society can generate these things. For example, if the public schools are bad, or at least not what we want and need them to be, then there are some policies that could address that. But government cannot fix the broken family systems that form children who are dramatically less capable of learning, or even behaving in a disciplined way. It is not only wrong to expect public school teachers and staff to raise our kids, but it is also an impossible ask.
That’s just one example. Here’s another: there’s not a lot government can do to keep online pornography out of the hands of America’s kids. There are lots of conservative Christian parents who go to church on Sunday, send their kids to Christian school, and who silently thank God that their kids are not having to deal with the moral chaos in public schools. And yet, these same parents hand their little kids smartphones (somebody in Dallas told me that you’re starting to see seven year olds with their first iPhones) through which hardcore porn and all the other sewage on the Internet can stream uninterrupted. And we have the nerve to think that we’re better off than the world? We need to repent and get our own houses in order. How can we be light unto the world, and help heal the brokenness and suffering of modern society, when we participate so uncritically in the habits that cause its brokenness and suffering? We cannot give what we do not have.
The sickness in civil society is one of the things The Benedict Option is meant to address. The argument goes something like this:
- We all live in “liquid modernity,” an unprecedented time of massive flux and instability in the lives of individuals, families, and communities;
- The churches can and should be an ark of stability offering rescue, shelter, and solidarity to all people lost at sea in liquid modernity;
- The church can best do that not by trying to do that directly, but by having that emerge as the by-product of its much more vigorous embrace of Christianity’s teachings and traditional practices, and a more intentional embrace of community within the church;
- The church cannot serve the world as she is supposed to without relearning and recommitting herself to her own Story, which has been lost in liquid modernity; this is a story that runs strongly counter to the narrative of expressive individualism and moral autonomy at the heart of liquid modernity’s story;
- Doing what needs to be done requires some substantial degree of withdrawal from participation in modern life — ceasing to “shore up the imperium,” in MacIntyre’s phrase — so that we can strengthen ourselves spiritually to bear authentic witness to the post-Christian world; continuing to think and live as if these were normal times is only going to hasten our already-significant decline;
- The relative loss of Christian power and influence at the national level, and the likelihood that we will be increasingly marginalized in the public square in years and decades to come, means that we should redouble efforts to engage and transform our local communities — which is a form of practical politics. To this end, I quote Yuval Levin, from his important 2016 book The Fractured Republic, a passage in which he addresses social and religious conservatives:
The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there. . . . Those seeking to reach Americans with an unfamiliar moral message must find them where they are, and increasingly, that means traditionalists must make their case not by planting themselves at the center of society, as large institutions, but by dispersing themselves to the peripheries as small outposts. In this sense, focusing on your own near-at-hand community does not involve a withdrawal from contemporary America, but an increased attentiveness to it.
One thing that strikes me about many of the early reactions to the book is how hard it is for people today to think of public engagement outside of the realm of electoral politics. This gets things backward. In classical thought, a disordered and weak polity is the result of disorder and weakness within the hearts and minds of the people within it. Government is vital to social stability and to midwifing broad practices and structures within a society, but it is not a church. Only the church is the church. As Tocqueville understood, the health of a democracy depends on the health of its churches. Yes, Christians must still vote and stay engaged to some degree with conventional politics, but at the core, the rebuilding of an unwell society starts at the local level, in our own churches. In The Benedict Option, I quote Vaclav Havel (an unbeliever, by the way) giving advice to those dissidents in his own country who could not and would not shore up the communist imperium:
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”
The restoration will be long, a project of many decades, perhaps even centuries. If the church is to play a role in it, the church must know who she is — and who she is not. The old Religious Right is dead; there is no “Moral Majority” by social conservative standards. It’s a different world. I talked this week to a Christian interviewer who said that a number of his church friends believe that with Trump’s election, the danger to the church has passed, and everything is back on track. If you believe that, you are dangerously deluding yourself. The fault for this is not on Trump; it’s on you.