An uneasiness has overtaken the body politic. There is a sense that a terrible clash is about to occur. The establishment’s contempt for Donald Trump, and their machinations to remove him, are validated by the president’s intemperate counterattacks and the glee that his supporters take in his barbs. These two groups do not simply disagree; they consider each other to be illegitimate and unconstitutional outlaws.
It is true that Trump’s behavior is not befitting his office and that a certain decorum and dignity in the White House is not only desirable but essential. Democracy is no different from any other form of government in that the political order is shaped by the character and example of its leaders.
However, there are also many reasons for Trump supporters to despise the establishment: endless wars in which the brunt of casualties are borne by those from Trump country, grotesque public debt generated by vote buying, a two-tiered educational system that ensures income inequality, pervasive government surveillance, open and lawless borders, and on and on. Our elites bring to mind the French aristocracy under Louis XVI, feigning formality yet, behind the scenes at least, corrupt, incompetent, and ruthless.
Ultimately what is most disconcerting is that the divisiveness is not just about Trump: it’s deeply rooted in two diametrically opposed civic religions. America is no longer one country. These two groups view their national story through different symbolic mythologies.
Since the 1960s, America’s leaders have been educated through an immersion in the culturally radical and postmodernist narratives that dominate the curricula of our best universities. It has become a primary goal of higher education to sensitize the future establishment to issues of race, gender, and class, and to raise awareness of global challenges such as climate change. Elite education is no longer designed to hand down a common cultural tradition and to serve as an intergenerational transmission belt for the American and Western heritage. In elite institutions, it is taught instead that America is a great obstacle to the empowerment of oppressed minorities and the central driver of global crises. A core teaching in the humanities and social sciences is that the Western heritage represents a monstrous oppression myth conjured up by dead European white men, which, of course, has its political expression in the identity politics of the Democratic Party.
Trump and his supporters loathe this narrative. The delight that they take in his boorish and even thuggish attacks derives from their belief that the elites are responsible for the systematic destruction of the true American civil religion. They believe that the establishment has taken a knee against its own country. Trump supporters, on the other hand, unabashedly embrace traditional American historiography and seek to elevate it by “making America great again.” Globalism and multiculturalism, and their concomitant political correctness, are viewed quite simply as insidious and unpatriotic, an attempt to bleach away the collective memory of the American story.
Trump understands the worldview of his base and capitalizes on it by attacking NFL “kneelers,” the liberal “fake news” media, and those who refuse to say “Merry Christmas.” At the same time, he loudly rallies around traditional symbols of American authority such as the flag, the police, and the military. Fox News, in fact, has built an entire business model around inflaming a segment of the public over perceived slights towards traditional American symbols.
While the elites have deliberately cut themselves off from their civilizational inheritance because they view it as unworthy, Trump supporters do not feel estranged from national and religious symbols and traditions. Most never attended an elite university, have never read Derrida, and have no desire to deconstruct the customs they love. The elites and Trumpites live in different moral universes, and their unrelenting political warfare derives from both groups’ understanding that power flows to those whose narratives retain legitimacy and validity. These battles are so worrisome because they are existential, not simply political.
This will not end well, I fear. Goodwill and moderation exist on neither side. It may be that a civil war looms on the horizon. All that’s required now is a spark because every cultural accelerant is now in place. That spark could come from the Mueller investigation, which is viewed by Trump and his supporters as a brazen attempt at a coup d’état by a thoroughly corrupt intelligence community and legal establishment. Impeachment over payments to paramours, for example, will be viewed as a phony pretext for the lawless removal of a duly elected president.
Given the intemperance of Trump and the viciousness of his opponents, compromise seems unlikely. Most of the American media will blame any conflagration on Trump, and certainly he will deserve some of the fault. But American elites are the revolutionary children of the ’60s and ’70s, proud despoilers of their country’s history and tradition. Now comes the counter-revolution, led by a gargoyle promising to defend the old cathedral. When postmodern radicals lecture him about the need to temper his attacks, a Trump supporter might retort the same way that a rebellious royalist did to the new Jacobin government in 1793: “You accuse us of overturning our patrie by rebellion, but it is you, who, subverting all principles of the religious and political order, were the first to proclaim that insurrection is the most sacred of duties.”
William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.