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Twilight Of The Elites — And The Rest Of Us

If you read nothing else today, read TAC editor Bob Merry’s powerful piece explaining why removing Trump cannot solve the crisis gripping America. [1] Excerpts:

America is in crisis. It is a crisis of greater magnitude than any the country has faced in its history, with the exception of the Civil War. It is a crisis long in the making—and likely to be with us long into the future. It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.
What is it? Some believe it stems specifically from the election of Donald Trump, a man supremely unfit for the presidency, and will abate when he can be removed from office. These people are right about one thing: Trump is supremely unfit for his White House job. But that isn’t the central crisis; it is merely a symptom of it, though it seems increasingly to be reaching crisis proportions of its own.

Seriously, read the whole thing.  [1] Merry talks in detail about the failures of American elites, Democrats and Republicans both, to govern the country for the sake of the common good. It’s important to remember that if Trump were to go, the nation would be governed by Mike Pence, a thoroughly conventional Republican, and by a Congress in the hands of a Republican Party that has shown few if any signs of having understood the meaning of the Trump election. In other words, pretty much more of the thing we had during the Bush administration — as we would have had the third term of the Obama administration (minus the president’s personal integrity) had Hillary won.

I would broader Merry’s critique. It’s not merely a problem of the elites, but something that has engulfed us all. Here’s commenter Sam M. reacting to the Chris Arnade piece about drug-ridden Portsmouth, Ohio, that I posted last night [2]:

““You around family members who use, around friends who use. When you start using drugs you are accepted for who you are, including your imperfections. For many people, myself, that is hard to stay away from.” [<– a quote from one of the addicts in the story]

Accepted for who you are. Interesting how completely this has overcome the communal language and filtered down to the least privileged, least educated people suffering in abject poverty. We shall be affirmed in our choices.

I think this is half-right. I think people are desperate for community, which is a human trait. One problem is that they’re so desperate for community that they will choose a bad community — one that finds solidarity in a shared vice — rather than be alone. This is not a problem that politics can solve.

Still, I think Sam is onto something about the language of acceptance, and how it corrupts. It is a dangerous misunderstanding of Christian mercy. When Jesus met the woman at the well, he diagnosed her sin, forgave her, and told her to sin no more. That is to say, he received her, told her what she had done wrong, released her from the burden of her guilt, and commanded her to repent. In our culture, we have lost the sense of the seriousness of sin, and the need to repent.

That’s a Christian judgment, which you may not share, at least in theological terms. But the phenomenon is rreal. Here’s an insight into how we got here:

That’s Google measuring the usage of the words “rights” and “duties” in published books. Notice how the lines began to diverge in the late 19th century — in the Progressive Era. The widening gap became a chasm around 1960. People focused on their rights understand themselves primarily as people to whom things are owed; those focused on duties understand themselves primarily as people who owe things.

No wonder Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has replaced orthodox Christianity as the real religion of most contemporary Americans. It is a pseudo-religion that caters to the desiring, narcissistic self. This is not merely a problem of elites in this country.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, and his tweets this morning:

Yeah, “councel.” As John Podhoretz snarked, “Well, at least we know he wrote it himself.” [UPDATE: In the original tweet, Trump wrote “councel”. He deleted that tweet and sent out a properly spelled one later. — RD]

The childish self-pity of our president is breathtaking. He’s a 70 year old man whining like a five year old. It is contemptible and extreme — but it is a symbol of our time and place. I’m old enough to remember a time when people who called themselves conservatives would have heaped scorn on this kind of thing, and rightly characterized it as a sign of decadence. You still find it at times, when conservatives complain about egalitarianism gutting standards of excellence. But the Trump example reveals the hollowness of conservatives on this point. Trump is a managerial incompetent and a man of low morality, yet many conservatives turn a blind eye to his grotesque failures, because … why? Because liberals and establishment Republicans hate him? Because he makes them in some sense “feel accepted for who [they] are”? Why?

But then, we must remember that most conservatives did the exact same thing when George W. Bush failed catastrophically. And most liberals cast their standards aside to affirm Bill Clinton in his mediocrity.This is what we do in America today. Donald Trump is only an extreme manifestation of a deeper corruption, one that implicates us all, elites and non-elites alike. One completely understandable reason why many Americans outside the Beltway are reluctant to abandon Trump is that they hold the governing class he defeated (including Republicans) in contempt, and do not think a return to power for them is progress. They’re not entirely wrong, either, but the failures of the elites do not suddenly make Donald Trump morally good or administratively competent.

So, Bob Merry is right: whether or not Trump stays or goes, the underlying condition he represents will be with us. As I write in The Benedict Option [5], addressing my fellow conservative Christians:

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that the robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.

…  There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency. No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.

What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.

We are living through Big History right now. Do not be deceived that the fate of Donald Trump, one way or another, will be decisive for the fate of the Republic. Name one institution that you fully trust. If you can’t, that tells you something, doesn’t it? As Bob Merry writes [1]:

It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.

I wish I believed that the problem was merely one of the elites, who were entrusted with power, authority, and responsibility, but who have failed so utterly to execute their duties. They bear the greater burden of blame, because to whom much is given, much is expected. But it’s not entirely their fault, not by any means. We really are like the late Roman republic, which, as Livy said, could bear neither its vices nor their cure.

Morris Berman [6] claims that there are four signs present when a civilization declines:

(a) Accelerating social and economic inequality

(b) Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems

(c) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness

(d) Spiritual death—that is, Spengler’s classicism: the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas—kitsch, in short.

A confession: on the advice of reader Leslie Fain, I bought a secondhand copy of Berman’s book The Twilight of American Culture [7] as preparation for writing The Benedict Option [5], but never got around to reading it. What a mistake that was! I was just googling around and discovered that in that book, Berman — a left-wing atheist — counsels people to take “The Monastic Option” as a way of preserving truth through the collapse now upon us. I think my copy of the Berman book is in storage, but I clearly have to go dig it up and read it.

114 Comments (Open | Close)

114 Comments To "Twilight Of The Elites — And The Rest Of Us"

#1 Comment By Jon S On May 19, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

Re: duties vs rights. We live in the age of Libertarianism. All duties are only to oneself. Once that is understood, there isn’t much else to discuss.

#2 Comment By russ On May 19, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

@Frank

Rod,

There are some big problems with your argument regarding American decline…

1. How do you explain the drop in all sorts of violent and property crime over the last few decades? That contradicts your view of American values being in decline…

2. Credit card debt has gone way down over the last ten years. Isn’t that a good thing, showing a degree of thrift?

3. Although very few individuals are virtuous enough to be virgins into their mid-20s, the teen pregnancy rate is at some big lows…

Look, I can cherry pick data too!
[8]

Debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade.

[9]

Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years

[10]
researchers found that heroin use in the United States is up 145% since 2007.

Just because you have placed your efforts in bad institutions (Catholic Church, George W. Bush, conservative establishment), it reflects more on your bad judgement than anything in the country.

Time to rescind your membership form the GWB Institute, Rod. If you just cherry pick some stats and change your worldview you’ll see the light. Everything’s great. Get some heroin, buy a new 65″ flat screen 4k tv, and have some fun. When it all seems pointless just kill yourself. It’s how we roll in America. We’re going to new heights (highs?), baby!

#3 Comment By inthepines On May 19, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

Rod, I just discovered your blog through the New Yorker profile but your comments section is really terrible; I assume this is largely because of where you are publishing this – I’ll keep reading but I will have to ignore the posts. Is there a forum where monastic ideas elsewhere?

#4 Comment By MikeW On May 19, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

What I’m noticing is how most of the people I know aren’t paying any attention to any of this. They’ve thrown up their arms, turned off the chattering, and are paying attention to other things. For example, on they ferry commute home last night, we talked about the recent shrimp season in Puget Sound, one guy mentioned a trip he’s taking to Vancouver Island with some buddies next week for salmon fishing, baseball (the Mariners in particular) came up, another friend of mine mentioned he’ll be skippering a boat that will be accompanying a bunch of Native American teenagers who will be paddling north to the Campbell River in a cedar canoe, and so on. None of us talked about work (two guys work at Amazon, I’m also in high-tech, two others sell fish worldwide, another is an exec at an insurance company). The closet we came to anything political was when the guy who went shrimping blamed the problem had had with his boat’s motor on the Russians. There are certainly serious issues at play in the news today, but perhaps the most serious one of all is how many people are turning it all off and tuning out.

#5 Comment By Olivier On May 19, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

I disagree that Trump is whining. There is a profoundly nefarious mindset in this country (not a recent one) that a politician must never complain, never protest and thus, e.g., concede gracefully after an electoral defeat even if he has good reason to think there was fraud or errors: look at all the abuse Gore took for daring to demand a recount in the 2000 election. In Europe when fraud is suspected the reaction is just the opposite. This is how you got the corrupt political culture you have now, in which all dirty deeds are permitted.

There’s a fine line between “taking it like a man” and being a punching ball. Unfortunately in the US you don’t seem to know the difference.

#6 Comment By Shaw Perrin On May 19, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

Few of us will become monastics. I think what Mr Dreher is searching for was discovered long ago by the Anabaptist groups, among whom I work as a farm veterinarian. They live in but not of this world. They have preserved a true sense of community. For better or worse, they (the most conservative of them–Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and the like) long ago gave up on politics.

#7 Comment By Lllurker On May 19, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

@Russ

“Debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade.”

Kevin Drum took a closer look at the statistics in that article, adjusted for population growth and inflation,etc. Today’s low interest rates in particular come into play. It turns out that what households are paying for debt service is at a historical low:

[11]

#8 Comment By David J. White On May 19, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

Rod, I just discovered your blog through the New Yorker profile but your comments section is really terrible; I assume this is largely because of where you are publishing this – I’ll keep reading but I will have to ignore the posts. Is there a forum where monastic ideas elsewhere?

Geez. With all respect and affection to Rod, the comments are a big reason I keep coming back.

#9 Comment By Lllurker On May 20, 2017 @ 12:10 am

@wes: “Why do many millions continue to believe the risks of Trump is acceptable”

I think this is where the heart of the matter lies: there is a difference of opinion as to how much catastrophic damage can be caused within the (executive portion of) the president’s job. Much of this talking past one another is because some view the danger of having an incompetent person in the presidency to be so high that things such as legislative goals must become secondary issues.

Here and there I see mention of Bushes (W.) decision to go into Iraq. My take on that decision is that the whole thing might have gone the other way had W not been in over his head. His incurious nature and lack of intellectual rigor led to a tendency to try to boil immensely complex issues down into simplistic binary constructs that were useless for sound decision making. In his mind really complicated things can always be reduced into simple good/bad, black/white type binaries without shades of gray. This made him very easy to manipulate, especially by the smart and extremely persuasive people who surrounded him. (Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.)

An example that comes to mind is something an adviser said about Bushes lack of knowledge about the country of Iraq. This guy (I believe it was a sub-cabinet level policy expert) said that during the run-up to the Iraq war Bush didn’t even know of the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslim sects. Which of course meant that W was completely ignorant of the centuries-old conflict that later ignited the civil war that has since set the whole region on fire.

Maybe not the best example, but I personally tend to view the presidency through this sort of lens. The person who holds the job needs to have the intellectual heft and maturity, and self-confidence, and breadth of experience to effectively evaluate and second-guess very smart and extremely persuasive domain experts. (Who always seem to want to go and start wars anywhere and everywhere.)

So when I evaluate Trump’s White House through this lens the picture I see is terrifying. If W was in over his head, what is Trump?

A larger aspect of this line-drawing exercise needs to focus on this issue: How catastrophic might it be to have a president who is incapable of handling the executive aspects of the job? And what trade-offs warrant risking such a possible catastrophe?

#10 Comment By jamie On May 20, 2017 @ 11:33 am

MikeW-

There are certainly serious issues at play in the news today, but perhaps the most serious one of all is how many people are turning it all off and tuning out.

I think this must be seen as one of Trump’s objectives generally. He’ll keep is loyal base as excited as he can, but for thoughtful people, he and Congressional Republicans send the clear message every day that the political process is so shameful and decrepit, and on a gut level so embarassing, that you’re better off tending your garden and not getting involved.

The system is supposedly rigged after all! Against Bernie, against Trump, and now the rigging is so complete he can shoot people on street corners and our vaunted checks and balances do little more than yawn and muddle through their tax cut legislation. The message cannot be more clear: nothing matters, just stay home.

#11 Comment By JonF On May 21, 2017 @ 7:21 am

Re: Debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade.

The increase in personal debt loads in the US is due mainly to student debt. This is the only form of debt that has seen major increase.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 21, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

even with military training a small posse of determined nutcases will not be able to march into the Capitol and hold the Senate hostage.

Frankly, in the context of the U.S. congress, as presently constituted, and with the level of public respect it enjoys… taking either house hostage would have an outcome reminiscent of “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

#13 Comment By Lee On May 22, 2017 @ 3:02 am

MikeW says: Bravo!

What you’ve stated is what this time frame is all about. It’s the invisible trend, that the elite morons will never spot or figure out, even when it’s all over and done…

#14 Comment By russ On May 22, 2017 @ 9:16 am

The arguments against the accuracy of the debt article I posted are way way way beside the point. They don’t really change anything regarding my actual point. Granted, I might have made the point very poorly.

However, none of you pointed out the obvious: a decade is a stupid time scale for measuring an increase or decrease in debt and making conclusions about fiscal responsibility. Too many small economic factors to tease out. There’s no way you can make a solid claim about fiscal responsibility trends by looking at only the past decade (short of doing a lot of technical explaining of why you think it’s valid).