The most intriguing aspect of the electoral tumult sweeping rich liberal democracies is the inability of insiders to provide a coherent account of what is actually going on. How did Donald Trump, you know, happen? Did we, Bugs Bunny style, fail to take that left-hand turn at Albuquerque and somehow end up on the wrong side of history?
It appears the West has sacrificed something of significance in exchange for its remarkable and towering achievements, with the repercussions now coming home to roost. We’ve entered an era of consequence, caught off guard, unable to retreat and with nowhere to hide. You also get the sense whatever has been lost, overlooked or forgotten in this grueling journey to the doom-fraught grandeur of a Trump presidency, is so subtle it’s probably hiding in plain sight.
Western civilization has been deeply influenced by the ideas of Plato and the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Common to both is the notion there is more to things than what is known to the senses or even grasped by the mind. Beyond the apparent world, there lies a higher metaphysical realm, what Nietzsche called the true world.
Such dualism extends to other facets of life. Head and heart. Free will and fate. Order and chaos. For centuries, a Christian theocracy assumed responsibility for striking the right balance, with its monopoly on truth and meaning eventually challenged by a rival institution, one based on reason and science, not scripture and theological mumbo-jumbo. Daring and profitable, the secularization of society has not, however, been without its pitfalls.
The Matrix, a film that draws heavily on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and messianic causes, provides an apt context for understanding what they are.
At their first meeting, Morpheus clarifies why Neo has made his way to this dingy hotel room. You can’t explain it, says the Zen master, but you feel there is “something wrong with the world,” that perhaps perceived reality is somehow inferior. To wake up, to connect to what is more real than what he merely thinks is real, the Matrix, Neo must make a leap of faith. Aware our hero remains a prisoner of his mind, Morpheus is careful not to suggest the goal is formulaic or rational. Instead, Neo is drawn into the moment, a state of being where he is radically open and attentive, the intellectual equivalent of Nothing Matters. No guaranteed solution is offered or expected. Just the truth. When faced with his all-or-nothing choice—red pill or blue pill—Neo lets go and trusts what he feels to be true.
While reason is a hallmark of the Enlightenment, some of the sharpest 17th and 18th century thinkers gave primacy to the heart. David Hume, for example. Or Rousseau, who believed that “man is a sensitive being, who consults solely his passions in order to act, and for whom reason serves only to palliate the follies his passions lead him to commit.” Blaise Pascal went further, claiming the head could never apprehend what is known to the heart.
This has been something of a dilemma for the revolutionary West.
Christianity complicated the truth, exploiting the spiritual dimension of reality and human nature to conceive of superstition. A hidden God moves in mysterious ways, yet the priesthood, apparently, still knows what he wants, when and from whom. Fledgling democracies sought to undermine authoritarian doctrine by appealing to reason. The sun doesn’t go around the Earth. Human beings were not created, they evolved from apes.
While necessary, an intellectual and worldly emphasis carried the risk the metaphysical baby might be inadvertently tossed out with the ideological bathwater.
As tyrannical as it was, the Church, due to its explicit recognition of a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, also worked to safeguard a sense of the sublime. Its orthodoxy affirms human limits. We’re each part of something greater, an all-at-once experience that can’t be engineered or, indeed, adequately expressed. In the end, reason is hopelessly insufficient.
Spiritual conviction has been assailed ever since a secular mentality took hold. Things can get out of kilter rather quickly, even in the United States of God Bless America, when newfound knowledge and power begin to confer prosperity and serious comfort and convenience. A spiritual domain? Bah! Insights of the heart? Who cares! What harm could ever come from unfettered reason and its gifted handmaidens, science and technology?
The Matrix and its genre are typically vague on how, exactly, the machines rose up and took control. Didn’t those in the near-future see it coming? What was the leadership thinking?
Well, doubtless there were intense pre-apocalypse debates, much considered thought and various solutions proposed. The fatal flaw lies in the fact none of the thinking or arguing would have entertained the inconvenient idea that reason had unwittingly become the problem.
The more a culture denies reality has an incomprehensible quality, the more control it is able to gain over the natural world, yet the closer it gets to the limits that bind cognition and language. Maximal intellectual momentum—and utmost hubris—coincides with the crossover point when the head should give way to the heart.
Refuse to embrace Nothing Matters, and society’s political and economic systems, hitherto beneficial, begin to crowd out the spiritual side of life. Overall well-being declines, despite us having more of everything. Such folly, of course, isn’t taken seriously by our cultural custodians. Sporadic panic and hand-wringing regarding, let’s say, vapid consumerism, a burgeoning bureaucratic state or icky bioethics, amount to empty gestures. The trajectory and pace of moral decline will not vary while ever the reigning ethos is predisposed to negate what gives life ultimate meaning and purpose.
Meanwhile, a decadent ruling class, pressed to do something, anything, continue to build out our very own modern-day Matrix. We’re increasingly in our heads, unable to relate to the world or pin point what is literally wrong, yet still sensing those in charge are leading us further and further into no-man’s land. As Nietzsche explains in Twilight of the Idols, hard-core materialism is a lose-lose strategy:
We have suppressed the true world: what world survives? The apparent world perhaps? … Certainly not! In abolishing the true world we have also abolished the world of appearance!
Which brings us to the Trump White House.
With the basics satisfied, the spiritually impoverished citizens of Western society hunger for the more-real-than-real, a unifying, heart-felt connection to what is, by definition, beyond the organizing machinery that now dominates everyday life. Alas, there is no truth pill. Nor is there a Morpheus at large prepared to pose the type of questions needed to break the spell of self-referential rationalism. Closed minds and distant hearts render our public discourse as crude and aggressive as it is futile. Political fear and social apathy triumph.
The establishment dog whistles: there’s too much at stake, people, to let go and have faith there is something more dignified and meaningful at stake!
It was logical for America to vote for a candidate—statesman preferably, but buffoon if need be—who has some inkling of WTF is going on and acts, in part, as if Nothing Matters. Donald Trump doesn’t overthink the situation—that’s the subtle relevance. He has no real solutions, another nuanced point missed by the pundits. The man goes with his gut, empathizing with ordinary folk, people who may fail to articulate their real concern, but who still have a better grip on reality than the clever fools who speak down to them.
Perhaps there was no wrong turn at Albuquerque and Donald Trump is the right person for the job, despite being so wrong for it in so many other ways. Though in several respects a fake, he nonetheless remains a tribune for what those inside the Beltway have lost touch with.
Robert Merry is right to claim that getting rid of him will change nothing, since Trump is a symptom not the cause. If those in the groupthink elite, left and right, can park their wounded egos for a moment and step back from a justified popular animus, they might finally join the metaphysical dots.
It’s the human spirit, stupid.
Mark Christensen is an economist and political commentator who has been published in leading Australian media, along with The Hedgehog Review and Front Porch Republic in the United States. He is presently writing a book on the plight of Western civilization.