Did you see Scott McConnell’s great TAC piece on the rise of the alt-right? In it, he talks about how whatever its excesses, the alt-right, in both its harder and softer versions, have a more realistic sense of what is going on in the West now than do many in the mainstream. I think this is correct, and the failure of the establishment parties and institutions to absorb the critique and to adjust for it makes for a dangerous and destabilizing situation.
I do not consider myself part of the alt-right (and they sure wouldn’t welcome a God-botherer like me), but they do have some important insights. One of the most useful concepts that has emerged from the alt-right is the idea of the Cathedral, a term coined by Mencius Moldbug. Moldbug and other alt-rightists consider progressivism/universalism to be a form of godless religion (and by progressivism, they include the GOP; remember, Alasdair MacIntyre said that in our modern liberal democracies, there are only liberals: conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals). Those who worship in the Cathedral aren’t aware of themselves as being adherents to a pseudo-religion. They think that they are simply part of the way the world works. The Cathedral itself is the infrastructure of their world: the established media organs, education industry, politics, entertainment, law — basically, all the opinion-forming and gatekeeping institutions of American society. Moldbug has called it a “mystery cult of power.”
Keep that in mind when you read this powerful Guardian essay by the liberal writer Thomas Frank, commenting on what the Wikileaks theft and revelation of John Podesta’s emails tells us about the Cathedral. Excerpts:
They are last week’s scandal in a year running over with scandals, but in truth their significance goes far beyond mere scandal: they are a window into the soul of the Democratic party and into the dreams and thoughts of the class to whom the party answers.
The class to which I refer is not rising in angry protest; they are by and large pretty satisfied, pretty contented. Nobody takes road trips to exotic West Virginia to see what the members of this class looks like or how they live; on the contrary, they are the ones for whom such stories are written. This bunch doesn’t have to make do with a comb-over TV mountebank for a leader; for this class, the choices are always pretty good, and this year they happen to be excellent.
They are the comfortable and well-educated mainstay of our modern Democratic party. They are also the grandees of our national media; the architects of our software; the designers of our streets; the high officials of our banking system; the authors of just about every plan to fix social security or fine-tune the Middle East with precision droning. They are, they think, not a class at all but rather the enlightened ones, the people who must be answered to but who need never explain themselves.
The dramatis personae of the liberal class are all present in this amazing body of work: financial innovators. High-achieving colleagues attempting to get jobs for their high-achieving children. Foundation executives doing fine and noble things. Prizes, of course, and high academic achievement.
Certain industries loom large and virtuous here. Hillary’s ingratiating speeches to Wall Street are well known of course, but what is remarkable is that, in the party of Jackson and Bryan and Roosevelt, smiling financiers now seem to stand on every corner, constantly proffering advice about this and that. In one now-famous email chain, for example, the reader can watch current US trade representative Michael Froman, writing from a Citibank email address in 2008, appear to name President Obama’s cabinet even before the great hope-and-change election was decided (incidentally, an important clue to understanding why that greatest of zombie banks was never put out of its misery).
The far-sighted innovators of Silicon Valley are also here in force, interacting all the time with the leaders of the party of the people. We watch as Podesta appears to email Sheryl Sandberg. He makes plans to visit Mark Zuckerberg (who, according to one missive, wants to “learn more about next steps for his philanthropy and social action”).
Then there is the apparent nepotism, the dozens if not hundreds of mundane emails in which petitioners for this or that plum Washington job or high-profile academic appointment politely appeal to Podesta – the ward-heeler of the meritocratic elite – for a solicitous word whispered in the ear of a powerful crony.
This genre of Podesta email, in which people try to arrange jobs for themselves or their kids, points us toward the most fundamental thing we know about the people at the top of this class: their loyalty to one another and the way it overrides everything else. Of course Hillary Clinton staffed her state department with investment bankers and then did speaking engagements for investment banks as soon as she was done at the state department. Of course she appears to think that any kind of bank reform should “come from the industry itself”. And of course no elite bankers were ever prosecuted by the Obama administration. Read these emails and you understand, with a start, that the people at the top tier of American life all know each other. They are all engaged in promoting one another’s careers, constantly.
Everything blurs into everything else in this world. The state department, the banks, Silicon Valley, the nonprofits, the “Global CEO Advisory Firm” that appearsto have solicited donations for the Clinton Foundation. Executives here go from foundation to government to thinktank to startup. There are honors. Venture capital. Foundation grants. Endowed chairs. Advanced degrees. For them the door revolves. The friends all succeed. They break every boundary.
Read the whole thing. Thomas Frank is one angry leftist — and he’s right to be. This is why I say that the Democratic Party is bound to get its Donald Trump one of these days — sooner rather than later. The Democratic leaders of the Cathedral can no more imagine losing power than the Renaissance popes did in the years prior to the Reformation, or the canons in the GOP wing of the Cathedral a year ago could imagine a grubby outsider like Donald Trump would be heading the party’s ticket going into the election, having torn the party to shreds.
This is not a brief for Donald Trump. As much as I take pleasure in the Cathedral’s pain, I agree with Ross Douthat that Trump is probably more dangerous than what he seeks to replace. In that sense, I am more Erasmus than Luther. Trump wishes to tear down a system that he sees as thoroughly corrupt (and he’s not entirely wrong in that, not by a long shot), but he does not know what to replace it with. From Douthat’s Sunday column:
There is no algorithm that can precisely calibrate how to weigh global instability against the reasons that remain for conservatives to vote for Trump. No mathematical proof can demonstrate that the chance of a solidly-conservative Supreme Court justice isn’t worth a scaled-up risk of great power conflict.
But I think that reluctant Trump supporters are overestimating the systemic durability of the American-led order, and underestimating the extent to which a basic level of presidential competence and self-control is itself a matter of life and death — for Americans, and for human beings the world over.
I may be wrong. But none of my fears (and I have many) of what a Hillary Clinton presidency will bring are strong enough to make me want to run the risk of being proven right.
I still believe Hillary Clinton will win this election, but if she does, it will settle almost nothing. The forces called up by the Cathedral’s failures — forces that have already sacked its Republican wing — will not go away anytime soon. And the Cathedral is unlikely to reform itself, because the stories it tells itself to justify its ways are theological, and immune to criticism or serious revision. What is likely to happen after this election is a further atomization of the American body politic, as more and more Americans come to recognize the correctness of the Cathedral as a symbol for the ruling elites, and embrace heterodoxy in one form of another.
The Cathedral’s archbishop, her canons, and its entire staff may wake up one day to find themselves in the approximate position of the Catholic bishops of Ireland did in the past decade: discovering that the congregation has disappeared, having lost faith in the Cathedral because of outside forces drawing them away, but also — and especially — because the Cathedral’s indifference and even hostility to them drove them away.