A reader points out this mention of moi-même in Franklin Foer’s new Atlantic piece:
Putin has inverted the Cold War narrative. Back in Soviet times, the West was the enemy of godlessness. Today, it’s the Russian leader who seeks to snuff out that supposed threat. American conservatives are struggling with the irony. They seem to know that they should resist the pull of Putinism—many initially responded to his entreaties with a ritualistic wringing of hands—but they can’t help themselves.
In 2013, the columnist Pat Buchanan championed Putin as an enemy of secularism: “He is seeking to redefine the ‘Us vs. Them’ world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.” This type of homage became a trope among conservative thinkers—including Rod Dreher and Matt Drudge—and in turn influenced their followers. In mid-2014, 51 percent of American Republicans viewed Putin very unfavorably. Two years later, 14 percent did. By January, 75 percent of Republicans said Trump had the “right approach” toward Russia. (When asked about this change, Putin replied, “It’s because people share our traditional sensibilities.”)
Donald Trump, who hardly seems distraught over the coarsening of American life, is in some ways a strange inductee into the cult of Putin. Indeed, of the raft of theories posited to explain Trump’s worshipful attitude toward the Russian leader, many focus less on ideology than on conspiracy. And yet, Trump’s analysis of the world does converge with Putin’s. Trump’s chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, clearly views Western civilization as feckless and inert. In 2014, Bannon spoke via Skype at a conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank. Shortly after the election, BuzzFeed published a transcript of his talk, which was erudite, nuanced, and terrifying.
Bannon was clear-eyed about Putin’s kleptocratic tendencies and imperial ambitions. That skepticism, however, didn’t undermine his sympathy for Putin’s project. “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin’s] talking about as far as traditionalism goes,” Bannon said. He shared Putin’s vision of a world disastrously skidding off the tracks—“a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The word crisis is used so promiscuously that it can lose meaning, but not in this case. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said, exhorting his audience to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
What to make of this? Well, for one, I am not a Putinist. I think the West is decadent, and have been saying so for a long time. This makes me a Putinist how? That the post-Christian West is in decline is not exactly an outré opinion on the cultural right, you know. Pope Benedict XVI said so on a number of occasions, as did Pope St. John Paul II. And from a traditional Christian point of view, it really is in decline. The dissipation of Christian faith, the loss of familistic ideals and practices, and the rise of the technological mindset (e.g., the idea that the point of life is to extend mankind’s will over nature) are all signs of decadence. To the extent that Western politics have aided and abetted this decline (and continue to do so), I fault Western politics.
If Vladimir Putin sees things the same way, well, good for Vladimir Putin. So does Ryszard Legutko, and as a Polish patriot, he is no fan of Vladimir Putin’s. The late Fidel Castro believed that the state should have a strong role in alleviating social inequality. So do many Democrats. That does not make them Castroites, does it?
I also oppose the West pushing its values on more traditional societies, spreading to them the same values that mark our own decline. Vladimir Putin appears to oppose this too. Am I supposed to change my mind because the president of Russia shares that view? Like Bannon says, we can be clear-eyed about where Putin goes wrong without ignoring or downplaying what he gets right.
There is little empirical basis for the charge of civilizational rot. It speaks to an emotional state, one we should do our best to understand and even empathize with. But we know from history that premonitions of imminent barbarism serve to justify extreme countermeasures. These are the anxieties from which dictators rise. Admiring strongmen from a distance is the window-shopping that can end in the purchase of authoritarianism.
Little empirical basis? Only a liberal could make a statement like that. Only someone with a prior belief that the health of a society is determined by the flourishing of the autonomous individual, unencumbered by the weight of religion and tradition could say that. For conservatives like me, the decline is marked by things like 1) collapse of the Christian faith, 2) the rise of a belief that freedom means liberating the autonomous individual from any and all constraints to the exercise of his will, 3) the advance of social fragmentation, coming in large part through the loss of the concept of the common good (Alasdair MacIntyre’s point), 4) the decline of the traditional family ideal via the Sexual Revolution, which is now destroying the idea of male and female, 5) a surrender to technology and its imperatives, and 6) the general loss of cultural memory.
Franklin Foer is an Ivy-educated Millennial who works as a journalist in Washington, DC. What I see as decadence he no doubt sees as signs of progress. I don’t expect him to agree with me, given that we surely begin from very different premises. But to say that traditionalists who believe that the West is in decline are simply in the grips of an “emotional state” is a mistake that amounts to defining the opposition as crazy, and therefore not to be taken seriously.
(None of this requires one to bow respectfully in Putin’s direction, or to have voted for Trump, by the way. I don’t believe politics can solve this problem, except insofar as it protects religious and other institutions of civil society, which can serve as seeds of renewal.)
In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.
This historical story was America’s true myth. When we are children, and also when we are adults, we learn our deepest truths through myth.
Myths don’t make a point or propose an argument. They inhabit us deeply and explain to us who we are. They capture how our own lives are connected to the universal sacred realities. In myth, the physical stuff in front of us is also a manifestation of something eternal, and our lives are seen in the context of some illimitable horizon.
That American myth was embraced and lived out by everybody from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan. It was wrestled with by John Winthrop and Walt Whitman. It gave America a mission in the world — to spread democracy and freedom. It gave us an attitude of welcome and graciousness, to embrace the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and to give them the scope by which to realize their powers.
We can argue about immigration and trade and foreign policy, but nothing will be right until we restore and revive the meaning of America. Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project?
Read the whole thing. I think Brooks probably shares Foer’s views, but he states the ultimate stakes more clearly. This is ultimately a religious war, or at least a religious contest, over the meaning of our national god, America. Brooks champions an old, familiar view of the United States as Providence’s instrument in history. He is, in this sense, keeping a very American faith, and conservatives who support Donald Trump should consider that it is they who are breaking with American tradition.
But what about we who don’t believe that God ordained the United States to spread democracy and prosperity throughout the world? What has the spread of democracy in Iraq, for example, accomplished by American arms, done to better the lot of that country’s people? In his second Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush said:
We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
In other words, America as an armed missionary force for Utopia. This is not national greatness, at least not one that I can support. Nor can I fully support what liberal democracy has come to mean today. Ryszard Legutko has written about how much liberal democracy resembles the communism that he and other Polish patriots fought:
Having cast away the obligations and commitments that come from the past, the communist and the liberal democrat quickly lose their memory of it or, alternatively, their respect for it. Both want the past eradicated altogether or at least made powerless as an object of relativizing or derision. Communism, as a system that started history anew, had to be, in essence and in practice, against memory. Those who were fighting the regime were also fighting for memory against forgetting, knowing very well that the loss of memory strengthened the communist system by making people defenseless and malleable. There are no better illustrations of how politically imposed amnesia helps in the molding of the new man than the twentieth-century anti-utopias 1984 and Brave New World. The lessons of Orwell and Huxley were, unfortunately, quickly forgotten. In my country at the very moment when communism fell and the liberal-democratic order was emerging, memory again became one of the main enemies. The apostles of the new order lost no time in denouncing it as a harmful burden hampering striving for modernity. In this anti-memory crusade, as in several other crusades, they have managed to be quite successful, more so than their communist predecessors.
The people, structures, thoughts that exists outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdates, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.
What if liberal democracy is not the solution to our problems, but the cause of at least some of them? In other words, what if the decadence we’re now living through isn’t because we have betrayed liberal democracy, but because liberal democracy is working? And if so, then what?
I certainly do not share the view often heard on the left that says America is only a force of evil in the world. But I also do not believe in American exceptionalism — that is, in the idea that we are set apart among the nations as a new Israel, a nation created and charged by heaven for spreading the gospel of democracy and prosperity to the world. John Locke was a great man, but he was not a prophet of God. Classic liberalism is not a religion. The US Constitution is not holy writ. America is good only insofar as she is aligned with God and His laws. Like Israel of the Bible, if she strays from God’s will, she will be chastised by Him.
We have to be extremely careful not to make an idol of America. I worry that “national greatness” conservatism does this, though what it really idolizes is liberal democracy and capitalism, of which the US is history’s avatar. Trumpism, it appears, denies the universality of that faith, and its global evangelical mission. Yet one reason I am skeptical and pessimistic about Trumpism is that his kind of nationalism seems to make a different kind of idol out of the nation, treating America as an end in itself, beholden to no higher standards than its own self-interest. This is also idolatry.
This is a difficult and confusing moment in our history. As a nation, and as a civilization, we don’t know who we are or what we are meant to be doing. We have lost the narrative. What happens when you don’t trust the old myth, but there is nothing new and persuasive to take its place? To put it more pointedly, what do you do when the ancien régime has been discredited, but the one aspiring to take its place does not inspire confidence or loyalty? This is where I find myself these days. It’s why I am so focused on the Benedict Option, and not so much on politics. We can keep liberal democracy, or we can move towards illiberal democracy, but none of that matters if we lose the faith.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban is one of the demons in illiberal democracy identified by the clerics of globalism. In this National Review essay, he hits on an important truth:
The leaders of our societies are also suffering from this loss of morale. Indeed, the symptoms I have described go hand in hand with an unspoken but manifest crisis of the European elite. In Western Europe, the center Right (the Christian Democrats) and the center Left have taken turns at the helm of Europe for the past 50 to 60 years. But increasingly, they have offered the same programs and thus a diminishing arena of political choice. The leaders of Europe always seem to emerge from the same elite, the same general frame of mind, the same schools, and the same institutions that rear generation after generation of politicians to this day. They take turns implementing the same policies. Now that their assurance has been called into question by the economic meltdown, however, an economic crisis has quickly turned into the crisis of the elite. More important, this crisis of the elite — sprouted from the economic crisis — has now become a crisis of democracy itself. Large masses of people today want something radically different from what traditional elites want. This is the deep cause of the restlessness, anxiety, and tension erupting on the surface time and again in the wake of a terrorist attack or some other act of violence, or when we confront a seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of migration. We grow ever more apprehensive, because we feel that what happens today in Nice, Munich, or Berlin can happen in virtually any other corner of Europe tomorrow.
The uncertainty and fear that characterize the European psyche today kill the soul. Fear forces everyone — countries, people, families, the actors in the economy — to curl up like a hedgehog in a defensive position. He who lives in fear will not undertake great things but retreat into defense.
I take it that Orban would not be a fan of the Benedict Option, but I would frame it like this. What Orban is doing is necessary to the defense of European tradition, including Christianity. It is necessary, but not sufficient. The Benedict Option is something that must grow organically within those societies, slowly and patiently working to regenerate civil society from within. If we only see the problem as external to our societies, and not primarily internal, then at best we prolong the decline. It’s better than hastening it, of course, but it’s not a solution.
Who are we? What are we for? These are vital questions. These are the questions of our time. Ultimately, they are religious questions, and they will have religious answers, even if the people answering them have no religion at all. I believe it was Russell Kirk who said that all political questions are ultimately religious questions, because they have to do with the nature of man and the belief in transcendent order. Kirk wrote:
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.
Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.
It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.