A reader writes:
I think we’re in an age of nihilism/moral anarchy & the like where “issues,” per se, are passé. Is someone for the active destruction of civilization? That’s about my core issue now.
Hillary yes, by commission. Trump, perhaps by corruption and indifference.
I think that’s a fair summary of where I am too. But let’s unpack those statements, and explore what they mean.
I don’t know what the reader means by “destroy civilization.” In my case, I take it to mean not “leave a smoking ruin where there used to be a civilization,” but rather, “significantly advance our civilization down the road to self-destruction by exacerbating its vices and weaknesses.” In that sense, how do the two real-world alternatives we have — Donald Trump, and the Democratic Party (as embodied by Hillary Clinton), threaten to do this?
On Trump, it’s not hard at all. He is a reckless and amoral man. He doesn’t care about the things a president has to care about. He won in large part because he identified some important issues that neither the GOP establishment nor the establishment Democrat Clinton saw, understood, or effectively addressed. But now that he is president, it’s clear that he lacks the focus, the stamina, or the skill to do anything meaningful about these issues. He promised to overturn Obamacare, but even as that effort was hanging by a thread, he went off to a golf tournament at a resort he owned. Now the Obamacare repeal has collapsed. I don’t follow that issue closely, and it may well be a great thing that it collapsed. The point is, however, that the president exhibited no leadership in trying to get one of his key campaign promises fulfilled — this, with a Congress ruled by his own party.
Plus, he seems to have no firm convictions other than serving his own ego, so we can never be sure what he will do. Many people voted Trump at least in part because he seemed less likely to get America more deeply involved in Middle Eastern wars than his opponent would have. It has turned out otherwise.
Meanwhile, Trump goes from scandal to scandal because neither he nor his family have much intuitive understanding of morality, ethics, and propriety. His personal behavior degrades the office of the presidency, and taints everyone who pays his tribute. I don’t think he’s cynical when he says he wants to Make America Great Again, but he conceives of greatness crudely, solely in terms of wealth and outward displays of power. There is no greatness in him, only smallness, pettiness, and decadence.
Often, it’s the little things that remind you that our president is a grifter and a huckster:
The president’s 5th tweet promoting the U.S. open at a property he owns https://t.co/siFTy4VZ0r
— Tarini Parti (@tparti) July 16, 2017
In his favor, though, I don’t believe Trump actively seeks to tear down good and important things about our civilization. I believe he simply does not understand what he’s dealing with. I think he’s probably at heart a sentimental patriot. Your Uncle Ricky, who plays the ponies on the weekend, gets drunk every few nights, is struggling to keep his third marriage from falling apart, swears like a sailor and smokes like a chimney, but who flies a faded and tattered flag from his front porch, gets misty-eyed at patriotic celebrations, and puts his hand over his heart when he hears the national anthem, and who would be at your side in a bar fight holding an empty longneck bottle in his hand like a club — to me, that’s Trump.
He’s bad for America. Because he is corrupt and indifferent to anything but himself, he will leave America a worse place than he found it. Yet we could do worse than him. Which bring us to Hillary Clinton — by which I mean the Democratic Party and left-liberalism.
It’s not easy for moderates, and even some conservatives, to understand why someone would see Hillary is conceivably worse than Trump. It is impossible for liberals to do so. Here is my case for that conclusion.
For one, she represents a bipartisan establishment that is globalist, technocratic, hawkish, self-serving, and unaccountable. Notice that I say bipartisan. Tucker Carlson’s great January 2016 piece about why the GOP deserves Donald Trump is evergreen, but it also applies in many ways to the Democratic Party.
In Hillary — and in contemporary left-liberalism — I see a contempt for ordinary people and their ordinary ways. I think she — and many of her supporters — really do see half the country as deplorable because we don’t share the same progressive values as they do. Look, I think a big part of what’s wrong with America these days is that all of us are inclined to regard those not like ourselves as deplorable. Conservatives are not free of this habit. The thing is, Trump doesn’t have contempt for me, and is not going to use the government to go after me, and the things that I value. Hillary (= what she symbolizes), I think, does.
Liberalism today is entirely captive to middle-class identity politics. From the liberal point of view, I am a deplorable race, a deplorable sex, and of a deplorable religion. The institutions of this society must be re-engineered to favor those of the favored race, sex, and religion (or lack thereof) — this, as a matter of justice. Liberals, broadly speaking, see justice in group terms, and can only see people like me — white, male, conservative, orthodox Christian — as an oppressor class that needs to be suppressed.
Freddie de Boer, who is a Marxist but also one of the clearest thinkers around, pleas with his colleagues on the academic left to understand how much their contempt for Republicans, conservatives, and all outside their congregation is going to cost them. Excerpt:
I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves. And the GOP has already shown a great knack for using claims of bias against academia, particularly given the American yen for austerity.
Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.
When I see what’s happening on elite campuses, and how feeble the response of liberals in power has been, I see the future for people like me under liberal rule. When I see little people like the Washington florist Barronnelle Stutzman crushed by the state and the ACLU, her persecutors cheered on because they’re sticking it to that homophobic hag, I know that this is exactly what they would do to me and all my friends if they had the chance. Because we are oppressors and nothing but.
Side note: I paid close attention to the long battle for same-sex marriage, because it was my job as an opinion journalist to do so, and because I had a special interest in the religious liberty aspect of the issue. I well remember the way pro-SSM activists and supporters posited the campaign as one demanding simple equality, nothing more. That sounded reasonable to a lot of people.
But: How did we get from that to the point where the Obama administration ordered public schools to open locker rooms to transgendered students? How did we get from that point to where school systems and other institutions of our society are embracing and enforcing an extremely radical view of gender, namely, the idea that male and female have no biological reality, and that reality in that sense is whatever the subject decides it is? And if you dissent, you are a HATER?
This, to me, is what liberal government means: empowering the people who have no intention of live-and-let-live, but who want to punish deplorables and deploy social engineering on a massive scale to destroy as unjust the traditional concept of sex, marriage, and family. When we lose that, what do we have left?
In Europe, I see a multiculturalism and self-hatred that is leading to civilizational suicide. We don’t face the challenges Europeans do from mass migration from alien civilizations, but I have no doubt at all that if we did, our American liberals would react exactly as Eurocrats are doing.
Is Trump going to deliver us from all this? No, I don’t think so. It is a sign of how thoroughly conservatism has been routed in America today that Donald Trump — of all people! — is the only thing standing between us and those who would pulverize what’s left of traditional beliefs and practices. I could not bring myself to vote for either one last fall, and hardly a day goes by without the president doing something awful.
But look: if it comes right down to it, I believe that Trump, for all his many sins and failings, does not despise people who look like I do, and who believe the things I do. I have no faith at all that liberals and Democrats feel the same way. My liberal and Democratic friends don’t feel that way, to be sure, but they are not the ones driving things in their party (and neither, I should say, are conservatives like me driving things in the GOP). I think many of us are being pushed to uncomfortable extremes against our will because of fear — legitimate fear — of the other side.
In the past week or so, I’ve had several conversations that have been on my mind. One of them was with an older friend, a Baby Boomer and devout liberal. My friend, who is white, has always been very much to the left on … well, everything, but especially on race. Lately, though, my friend has been feeling shell-shocked by what’s been going on in our society. My friend really is an old-fashioned, Dr. King race liberal, but now my friend has come to believe that this sort of person is increasingly despised among African-Americans today, and among younger white progressives. I’ve never seen my friend in such anguish. To be sure, my friend thinks Donald Trump is the devil incarnate, which is no surprise to me. The despair over race in America — that’s something new.
I had a conversation with a friend in a major East Coast city, a white Evangelical who has been active in racial reconciliation efforts through church circles. He dropped out, mostly because he got tired of going to these meetings and having them turn into nasty lectures from minorities and their white supporters on the evils of “whiteness”. He told me that he’s shocked to see how radical on race that liberal white Millennial Christians he knows are becoming (embracing “anti-whiteness” and the like), but also how some white conservatives he knows are being driven towards the Alt-Right by it all. The thinking, he said, is that nobody really cares about justice, that it’s all about power. If they are irredeemable because they are white male conservatives, then why not join up with others who are not ashamed of their race, their gender, and their beliefs? If everybody else is going to forswear classical liberal values and go full identity politics, why not them?
Understand: I’m not defending this — I will explain in the next post why I think this is the way of death for the Church — but I am saying it is entirely plausible. When you demand that people change, while at the same time denying that they have the possibility of change (or that the only acceptable change is total surrender), then you should not be surprised when they decide to quit playing this “heads I win, tails you lose” game. The left and the right are driving each other to these extremes. Identity politics are going to be the end of us. When a society no longer has a shared basis of belief, there is nothing left but identity politics, which are always a politics of grievance.
I look at Trump, and see ruin. I look at the alternative to Trump, and see ruin. But I only truly fear the alternative. In this narrow sense, as bad as he manifestly is, Trump becomes the less bad of the possible outcomes. But that is not the same thing as a good outcome.
We are in a situation in the West like that described by the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989), in a collection of his essays published in English in 2015 as The Crisis Of Modernity. Del Noce writes that the West is facing a new “totalitarianism” composed of “an unbreakable unity of scientism, eroticism, and secularization theology.” It amounts to the negation of all spiritual forces that have sustained our civilization.
Del Noce says that we have been “liberated” from the authority of the past, but also from any sense of responsibility toward the future. Our “freedom” is in our fragmentation. There is no authority left. He writes:
The widespread notion that the age of totalitarianisms ended with Hitlerism and Stalinism is completely mistaken. In fact, totalitarianisms are founded on the negation of the universality of reason, so that any form of opposition to established power (in the broadest sense), be it cultural or political, supposedly does not express rational concerns but conceals interests of class (according to Communism) or race (according to Nazism), regardless of the awareness of those who criticize. If one reflects about the relationship between authority and evidence, it becomes clear that, ultimately, negating these two notions must necessarily lead to the persecution, ending in elimination, of all dissenters. Weapons may change, and be either physical or psychological, but one should not assume that psychological persecutions are any less terrible.
It’s not hard to see where the militants of intersectionality fit into this scheme, and where the old-fashioned liberals who ought to stand up to them, but who cannot or will not, do also. But can’t you also see where the Trumpists play their part, with their declarations that anything that counters their preferred narrative is “fake news,” and with their abandoning their principles to declare Trump a good man and a patriot? What is truth, but what serves the revolution and its goal of liberating the Self to be conscious of itself through the exercise of its own desires and will?
So, to go back to the reader’s claim that started this digressive post: I believe that “Hillary” (a symbol for the globalist, secularist, technocratic, multiculturalist order) actively desires and will pursue the destruction of Western civilization, as a social and cultural entity with roots in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. I believe that “Trump” (a symbol for know-nothing nationalist populism) is stumbling towards that same goal without realizing what he is doing, because he’s indifferent to the past, to morality, and to much of anything beyond satisfying his appetites. He’s right-wing, but not conservative. Hillary active, Trump passive.
I could be wrong. But those are the thoughts the reader’s words brought to my mind. In both cases, we the people are not innocent. We have produced these alternatives.
UPDATE: Reader ESO offers a brilliantly concise summary of this post:
Your post reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Both Hillary and Trump (as symbols) are following the two impossible courses that Lewis identifies: Hillary rejects the Tao, or fundamental truths that have united humanity since its inception, but simultaneously desires steadfast truths that can’t be undermined–hence the descent into ever murkier identity politics in a quest for the real (which can only be the Tao, but that’s rejected). Trump rejects the Tao, too, but to satisfy his insatiable appetites. Both ways of thinking lead to the end of humanity.