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Conservatism After Trump

David Brooks says that he’s not taking Donald Trump’s march to the nomination lying down. [1] He confesses that he has spent too much time inside bourgeois circles, talking to people like himself, and hasn’t spent enough time out with the kind of people who respond to Trump’s message. A lot of people don’t like David Brooks (I am not one of them; I’m very fond of him), but you have to give the man credit: it’s very hard to find another prominent columnist at his level who will admit he was wrong, especially in that way, and who vows to get out of his office and into the country to see what’s going on.

Anyway, this part of the column is especially interesting:

We’ll also need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together. The author R. R. Reno has argued that what we’re really facing these days is a “crisis of solidarity.” Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism.

Maybe the task is to build a ladder of hope. People across America have been falling through the cracks. Their children are adrift. Trump, to his credit, made them visible. We can start at the personal level just by hearing them talk.

Then at the community level we can listen to those already helping. James Fallows had a story in The Atlantic [2] recently noting that while we’re dysfunctional at the national level you see local renaissances dotted across the country. Fallows went around asking, “Who makes this town go?” and found local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that give, say, high school dropouts computer skills.

Then solidarity can be rekindled nationally. Over the course of American history, national projects like the railroad legislation, the W.P.A. and the NASA project have bound this diverse nation. Of course, such projects can happen again — maybe though a national service program, or something else.

He may be right. I hope he’s right. This has implications, obviously, for the Benedict Option.

As I see it, the Ben Op is, as someone here put it the other day, a form of “Christian localism,” one that would inspire exactly the kind of thing Brooks is talking about here. One gives up much hope of changing the country, and focus on what good one can do locally. As I will never tire of saying, the best example I have yet encountered is the Tipiloschi, [3] the lay Catholics in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, who built a community school that also serves kids outside their own community, who reach out to local kids who are falling through the cracks and helps them, and who even launched a solidarity program with the Chesterton Center in Sierra Leone [4] (fellow distributists!) to send them used equipment and other supplies needed to support their own local community. The Tipiloschi are ardently local, but because they are ardently local, they find the resources to reach out beyond their town.

I spent hours interviewing Marco Sermarini, the leader of the group, this past February, finding out how and why they succeed so brilliantly. Alas for you, you’ll have to wait for my book to come out next year to hear what he has to say. For now, I will say that the Tipiloschi are defiantly countercultural. They see the contemporary world as badly misguided, and don’t want to conform to it. The key is that they are not simply against something; if they were, they would be stuck in a defensive crouch. Rather, they are for something, and for it with joy and energy.

The main lesson I took from my short time with them is evidence that it’s simply a false choice that if one thinks of one’s community as separate from the world in a serious sense, that one has by that fact turned one’s back on the world. Granted, it’s a hard thing to pull off, I imagine, but they could not imagine being faithful Christians without doing both. That is, they know that in order to hold on to their faith in the world today, they have to adopt certain practices that build internal solidarity, deepen their roots, and that set them apart from the mainstream. But they also know that the very faith that holds them together and gives them a reason to live both commands and inspires them to serve others. How they do so is a fascinating case study. I hope David’s travels take him to San Benedetto del Tronto, because we Americans have a lot to learn from those Italians, for sure.

The great challenge orthodox American Christians face in our fragmenting society is one that the Tipiloschi have somehow mastered: managing to be in the world but not of it. That’s not just a saying with them; they live it. From what I can tell, the Tipiloschi, all of whom are orthodox Catholics, know exactly how far their religious beliefs put them from the mainstream of Italian society. They don’t feel beaten down or abashed by that, but embrace their difference. They are open to the outside world, but confident enough in their own beliefs and practices not to want to compromise with the world for the sake of getting along. If the world wants to join them, great, come on in. But they’re not going to water down their Catholicism for the sake of being seeker-friendly. In fact, they consider their faith the primary good that they have to share with the community, but not the only good.

When I visited the Tipiloschi “clubhouse,” as I call it, on top of a hill overlooking the Adriatic, I saw three teenage boys, all of whom had been involved in one way or another with juvenile crime, who had been drawn into the community and were now a part of it, working with its adults and its young people to improve the site. The Tipiloschi gave them a ladder of hope. It was a beautiful thing. They’re doing small but effective things too, like trying to keep the tuition low enough at the community’s school, the Scuola G.K. Chesterton [5], so that working families outside the community can afford to send their kids. But here’s the thing: they insist that the school’s mission to educate kids in a classical manner, according to the Catholic faith, cannot succeed unless the parents are also part of the mission. In other words, people in the community cannot sit on the outside, partaking of its goods as consumers. Real solidarity requires them to assume a role in the overall mission.

To pull this off requires immense confidence, and that’s what they have, for sure. It’s going to take the same kind of confidence here. One of the big lessons I took from the Tipiloschi is a very Benedictine one: by focusing first and foremost on serving God as Roman Catholics committed to their local community and its practices (frequent mass, Scripture study, prayer, confession, at least once a week having a communal meal, etc.), they find the strength to be of real service to others. The difference between this and what I’ve observed in (non-Benedict Option) American Christian communities is that Americans tend to believe, mistakenly, that the fundamentals of the faith are solid in themselves and their own young people, such that they can spend most of their time focusing outward. That’s not how the Tipiloschi are. Everyone in the community, even the adults, participates in Bible study and the like. Learning about the faith is a lifelong project, one that provides the fuel for the light that they bring to others outside the community.

This is an example of anti-political politics in action. They all vote, and in fact many of them went earlier this year to a big demonstration in Rome in favor of traditional marriage. But the national political scene is not really their concern. Localism is.

In our country, I wonder to what extent laws and public sentiment will allow Benedict Option Christians to do what the Tipiloschi do, given the growing move to demonize orthodox Christians. No doubt things are going to tighten up on us, and we need to give up hope that we are going to solve this through political engagement. What we need to do is to build strong internal resistance, by putting down deeper roots in our faith (through study and practices), and by building thick relationships with each other and our local communities.

Some people say that the state is bound to forbid Benedict Option communities like the Tipiloschi from operating in this country. Maybe that will come one day. Who knows? In the meantime, we have to do what we can with the time and the resources we have. The Tipiloschi suggest what can be accomplished by religious conservatives locally.

[Note to readers: I am not posting or approving comments on Friday, which is Holy Friday for the Orthodox. Leave a comment if you like, but I won’t approve it until tomorrow. Thanks for your patience. — RD]

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60 Comments To "Conservatism After Trump"

#1 Comment By JonF On May 1, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

What Colorado Jack said. There’s plenty of good social work being done by Christians of all sorts. But we do not hear much about it because A) much of it is local B) those doing it do not run around tooting their own horn about it C) the media prefers controversy and scandal to stories of people doing things as they should .

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 1, 2016 @ 8:05 pm

If one expects to contribute something beneficial to the pageant of humanity, one should aspire to more than being either the pot, or the kettle.

I had no choice but to vote for a Mitt Romney…

Self-serving horse manure. Of course you had a choice, and you CHOSE to vote for Mittens.

I’ve voted straight Republican since 1984 and just about every vote was for the lesser of two evils. I now have a candidate whom I will crawl over broken glass to vote for.

This seems like a distinction without a difference. You’re still voting straight Republican, you just feel a little better about it this time.

I suspect within the next few weeks we will see Kristol, Krauthammer, Brooks, and most of the necon establishment openly declare for Clinton.

Well, sure. Hillary is more neocon than Trump. That’s why Sanders is running against her. Meantime, the Republican establishment is beginning to realize that if they want a prayer of Republican victory, they better rally behind Trump. Which they are doing, its all over the headlines. Let’s see, I don’t respect the Republican establishment, I don’t respect Trump, and I don’t respect Hillary. Obviously none of them are a good choice to follow.

I do think that WHOEVER is elected in 2016 will be a one-term president. They are going to disappoint, badly, or preside over disaster, or both. And Sanders is getting old to last effectively for two terms. Anyone notice how much Barack Obama’s hairs have grayed during his two terms? It takes a lot out of you.

#3 Comment By VikingLS On May 1, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

“Are you a veteran? Whether you are or not, do give us a brief synopsis of what Trump’s VA plan is and why you find it meritorious.”

Siarlys,

Why do you expect me to do that? It’s not like Trump has his website behind a pay wall.

Go read the the policy papers Siarlys. You have a responsibility to be informed about things you comment on. I’m not going to do your homework for you.

#4 Comment By VikingLS On May 1, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

Siarlys

FWIW my father’s life is dependent on the VA and Trump’s plan would spare both himself and my mother a lot of suffering if enacted.

Don’t try that “are you a veteran?” crap again. Not with me, not with anybody.

#5 Comment By VikingLS On May 2, 2016 @ 11:14 am

“Let me wager that you don’t think that the fact that she has that plan on her website means she is deeply concerned about veterans..”

You’d lose that bet. Despite the constant accusation that the Clintons hate the military I have never seen any indication that they do.

Now I want to be very clear about this. I am not saying that all veterans are supposed to support Trump.

I am saying that there are aspects of Trump’s plan for VA reform that would be in the self-interest of vets.

For example my paralyzed father has to travel an hour and a half to get to the VA hospital. When he has been there for extended periods my mother goes there every day. That’s 3 hours of driving.

There is a local hospital that takes Medicaid it’s ten minutes away.

“So, yeah, in the end, reading the VA policy page gives you nothing. ”

No, and the part of it that you are criticizing as unworkable is going to be attractive to people even if it i going to be more expensive.

“If you think that Trump is the real thing, the man who thinks of us, unlike the politicians, you think that this page indicates he is committed to veterans. If you think his whole campaign is about making promises to do what feels good to every group that might vote for him, without details or thoughts about how to pay for things, you have enough evidence for that point of view on that page.”

That’s not really relevant to my point and you’re projecting. A person can look at Trump and see things that are going to be in their interest without glorifying the man himself.

The VA plan is an example of that.

It surprises me that you want me to understand the nuance that allows you to support Sanders in theory, but Clinton in practice, but anybody who might be looking at Trump can only be delusional.

If you’re going to insist on reasoning this way it’s going to be a long four months for you.

#6 Comment By Camus On May 2, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

Just out of curiosity what is the fertility rate among these Italians. I ahve been thinking and we need to be averaging about 4-5 children per women to really grow and stay strong in this culture because we will be losing people.

#7 Comment By DeclinetheEnjoy On May 2, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

The problem with Christian works, and why the commenter doesn’t see them, is that they mostly treat the symptoms without much serious look into solutions. A christian will run a food pantry faithfully and tirelessly, with great service. They do not as a group try and change macro-level problems like why so many people in the community need to use food banks in the first place.

It leads to a lot of running in place. Christians are not big on being innovative thinkers or looking at solutions that way. Most of the churches more or less are doing things the same way they did it in the fifties.

[NFR: How do you know this? You cannot possibly know this. You’re just talking out of your head. — RD]

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 2, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

Why do you expect me to do that?

Because you offered an argument Viking. It is your responsibility to show some substance, not mere angst and vitriol.

If I ask WHERE you got your facts, or how do you know, then you could give me a citation. But first, you have to show your own cards; otherwise you are at least a lazy oaf, even if you are not a lying fill in the blank.

Further, if I were to look up Trump’s web site, I might miss the wit and wisdom you found there, and write it off as a lot of bombastic rhetoric. Only if you can make a convincing argument would any of us begin to see that Viking has found something here that we all missed… if you can.

#9 Comment By JonF On May 3, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

Re: . They do not as a group try and change macro-level problems like why so many people in the community need to use food banks in the first place.

That may be true, but then who among us has the power to change the macro-level problems through our own actions? Even the largest of churches is fairly weak and small when you look at the wealth and power centers of the corporatocracy.
To be sure, Christians with serious interests in addressing poverty etc. ought vote accordingly– but in the meantime doing small things that they can is not something to criticize as if they were doing nothing.

#10 Comment By Bill On May 7, 2016 @ 11:32 am

I find Brooks insufferable, and when I read his (entire) column in the NYT Thursday I found him even more insufferable than usual. Rod, I think you are being overly charitable and reading-in much closer parallels between Brooks’ thought and yours than actually exist.

As Brooks states, he is talking about — “communitarianism” — which is big-government rebranded. WPA? Extreme individualism is always bad, but Brook’s call to abandon the “rags to riches” sounds an awful lot like a recipe for a managed-decline, stifling, emasculating, statist, bureaucratic malaise. “You didn’t build that.”

His mention of localism is admirable but seems secondary, and again he appears to be talking mostly about government-sponsored activity. And “arts festivals,” though positive for communities, smack of Brooks’ bourgeois-bohemianism and not of what most communities and people really need or want.

The fact is that Brooks would be repulsed by orthodox Christian or traditionalist-oriented localism, unless very strictly isolated from government (and even then he might disapprove.) This is someone maintains that the “solution” to our problems requires “a redefinition of masculinity.”

Brooks’ utter contempt for anyone who might support Trump — they will be “tainted forever” — speaks volumes, and his limited contriteness reeks of condescension at best.

It is good to find what is right and good wherever it can be found. At the same time, more harm than good arises — and has very much arisen in the U.S. — from the papering-over of fundamentally incompatible worldviews.