I’ve been pretty explicit in this space for some time about how I think the Donald J. Trump phenomenon is based in something real. I mean, the grievances to which he speaks are not phantoms. What I find impossible to accept is that Trump is anything other than a voice of resentment. If he offered some kind of way to redress those grievances, to do something concrete about them, things would be different. If he had the moral probity and personal character to lead others to solutions, things would be different. I keep wanting to think he does, and have been trying to give him the benefit of my own severe doubts about him. But after last night’s deplorable show on state in Detroit, it could not possibly be clearer that Trump will deliver for nobody. If he wins the presidency, he is going to betray the people who believe in him. That’s who he is.
Longtime readers will know that I carry no brief for the GOP establishment. I haven’t voted Republican for president since 2004 (or Democratic), and formally left the GOP to register as an independent back in 2011. I am a more or less traditionalist conservative who has no faith in the Republicans, and even less in the Democrats. Again, I am sympathetic to many who are drawn to Trump, because the GOP has done very little for them.
What I find hard to understand is why nothing Trump says or does shakes their faith in him. I wish he were the populist tribune that he claims to be. Why do people need so badly to believe that he is?
I think it’s despair, of several kinds. And I think we are in a much more dangerous position than many people understand. As somebody in Texas said to me tonight — someone who said he doesn’t like Trump — “I’m so tired of these people who hate Trump so much they refuse to even think about why people support him.”
Tonight in Texas I was talking to some folks about the Trump phenomenon, and one of them said something particularly interesting. He talked about a relative of his who has a high school education, who works a physically demanding job in a rapidly collapsing field, who lives in a bleak part of the country with his girlfriend, who is addicted to drugs and who has kids by different men. You get the picture. This guy is totally on board with Trump. He listens to InfoWars and believes in conspiracy theories.
“Trump is talking to people like him, not people like you,” said this man. “He’s talking to people who feel like their lives are about to blow apart.”
I guess Trump is talking to people like the reader who left this comment on the “GOP RIP” thread:
After last night’s debate, and seeing Trump switch on the H1B issue, I feel gutted. People like me are drowning and we simply don’t know what to do. All I see are competing theories, but feel that there is nothing tangible upon which to base my hope. All I know is that the best I can do is to find one or two jobs that pay 8.25-10.00 an hour. This reality has triggered significant depression within me and many fellow working-class millenials. There is no hope. No wonder the suicide rate is so why among white, working-class Americans.
However unreasonable this may sound to some, but I feel particularly betrayed by Conservative Incorporated. Why? Well, I’ve spent my twenties advocating (by way of volunteering on campaigns) for GOP candidates who defended free-market solutions which would ostensibly trickle-down to help me and others in my situation. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. Bush Republicanism seeks my permanent ruin and I’ve had it. I don’t care that my reasoning is entirely emotive, but I desperately wish to see the GOP die. If I’m going down and I want them to burn in Hell with me. [Emphasis mine — RD]
There are those people, and they’re real, and there are a lot more of them than middle-class people like me can imagine, because they are invisible to us.
But that doesn’t explain all of Trump’s support. In Louisiana, which votes today, the voters I know who have come out for Trump, and those I have seen on TV at his rallies, do not look like desperate people. A friend of mine, a prosperous man, is voting Trump because he’s disgusted with “Washington”. Trump is anti-Washington. Case closed.
It is hard to argue from the Right — well, from my corner of the Right — that the Republican Party, at least, is not due a hard takedown. There’s the foreign policy debacle of the Bush Administration, but for me, Maggie Gallagher hits on another very important thing in her National Review column: that the Republican Party is owned by Big Business, and pays lip service to social conservatives. Excerpt:
The really grave fissure in the GOP, and the one that has catapulted Trump to power, is the chasm that has emerged between Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the rest of us. Hat tip to Ben Domenech for noticing this important insight from Angelo Codevilla:
America is now ruled by a uniformly educated class of persons that occupies the commanding heights of bureaucracy, of the judiciary, education, the media, and of large corporations, and that wields political power through the Democratic Party. Its control of access to prestige, power, privilege, and wealth exerts a gravitational pull that has made the Republican Party’s elites into its satellites.
[More from Codevilla, not included in Gallagher’s column: “This class’s fatal feature is its belief that ordinary Americans are a lesser intellectual and social breed. Its increasing self-absorption, its growing contempt for whoever won’t bow to it, its dependence for votes on sectors of society whose grievances it stokes, have led it to break the most basic rule of republican life: deeming its opposition illegitimate.”]
From my front-row losing seat in the gay-marriage wars, I saw this emerge time and time again: the capacity of the Left to affect GOP elite opinion, to punish and stigmatize gay-marriage dissenters, and to get the GOP to shut up and back down, while polls still showed a majority of Americans on our side. Now, when the battle is against the Left’s massive new effort to redefine the traditional understanding of marriage as hatred and bigotry, to be punished by the government as such, you can see the dynamic even more nakedly at work.
My own “burn baby burn” moment regarding the GOP was learning last fall from Congressional insiders that the party’s leadership had no plans for religious liberty legislation post-Obergefell. They don’t want to have to be told by the media that they’re all bigots. And, plainly, their deep-pocketed donors are embarrassed by the church people who give the Republicans their votes. So, screw us, is the thought.
I understand that Republicans cannot achieve, post-Obergefell, what people like me would like to see them achieve in terms of protecting traditional marriage. That ship has sailed. The culture has shifted. It’s unreasonable to expect the moon.
But for pity’s sake, when the Republican Party cannot bring itself to defend religious liberty, and the right of church people who don’t sell their Christianity out to be left alone, what bloody use are they? You think Marco Rubio, who has as a big donor Paul Singer, a Republican gay rights crusader, can actually be trusted to stand up for religious traditionalists? Or Ted Cruz, despite his rhetoric? I do not. So when people say they don’t trust Trump on these issues, I share their skepticism, but their skepticism often does not go far enough.
We are also watching the ongoing dispossession of people in this country of their history, at the hands of progressives — and the forces of political conservatism are saying nothing about it. From the front page of the Stanford University newspaper yesterday, a report about a move underway to purge the campus of all references to St. Junipero Serra, a Catholic missionary who was a pivotal figure in California history. Excerpt:
Leo Bird ’17 introduced the resolution in the ASSU senate. Bird, who prefers to be referred to by the gender neutral “they,” said that they were motivated by what they saw as the discrepancy between Serra’s actions toward Native Californians and his legacy on Stanford’s campus.
“It really started out of conversations that I started to have my freshman year at the Native American cultural center,” Bird explained. “I started to get involved with Bay Area activism and started to recognize that there was this historical figure [Serra] that was represented that was sort of praised, honored, in a way that I felt really did a disservice to a lot of the California Native community as well as to my own identity, being here at Stanford.”
“They.” Good lord. This is the kind of person who triumphs, over and over, because our universities and the elites they serve have gone corrupt and insane. Who stands up to this? They win and they win and they win. If people conclude that they are being dispossessed in their own country, and the Republican Party is effectively colluding with the dispossession, then who can be surprised by a backlash that takes the form of support for Trump? When the left wages culture war, as it constantly does, it should not be surprised that at least some conservatives see the only one on their side who brings any kind of fight to the battle is an extreme vulgarian named Donald Trump.
I’m not defending Trump. I’m trying to explain his appeal. Believe me, my heart wants the Republicans to be spatchcocked and grilled, but my head says that the country would take an unacceptable risk with Trump in the White House.
But. I still don’t think that this kind of thing is the pro-Trump despair that accounted for economically secure middle-class people voting for him. What I’m seeing is rage from people who have been imbibing right-wing media rhetoric for so long, rhetoric meant to delegitimize governing institutions. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had over the past few years with middle-class, economically secure Republicans who watch a lot of Fox and listen to talk radio, who believe really nutty things about the government, and who refuse to have their views challenged. It’s total emotivism — the concept that if you believe it strongly enough, it must be true. I don’t actually believe this is merely a GOP phenomenon; rather, I think it’s generally true of our contemporary culture (MacIntyre called it nearly 40 years ago), but it has a particular manifestation on the Right today. If establishment Republicans can’t figure out why so many GOP voters believe Trump’s crazy rhetoric and allow their votes to be determined by it, I would invite them to review the past two decades of the communications culture the Right has created. Back in 2009, John Derbyshire wrote in TAC about how talk radio is destroying the Right. Excerpt:
Why engage an opponent when an epithet is in easy reach? Some are crude: rather than debating Jimmy Carter’s views on Mideast peace, Michael Savage dismisses him as a “war criminal.” Others are juvenile: Mark Levin blasts the Washington Compost and New York Slimes.
But for all the bullying bluster of conservative talk-show hosts, their essential attitude is one of apology and submission—the dreary old conservative cringe. Their underlying metaphysic is the same as the liberals’: infinite human potential—Yes, we can!—if only we get society right. To the Left, getting society right involves shoveling us around like truckloads of concrete; to the Right, it means banging on about responsibility, God, and tax cuts while deficits balloon, Congress extrudes yet another social-engineering fiasco, and our armies guard the Fulda Gap. That human beings have limitations and that wise social policy ought to accept the fact—some problems insoluble, some Children Left Behind—is as unsayable on “Hannity” as it is on “All Things Considered.”
I enjoy these radio bloviators (and their TV equivalents) and hope they can survive the coming assault from Left triumphalists. If conservatism is to have a future, though, it will need to listen to more than the looped tape of lowbrow talk radio. We could even tackle the matter of tone, bringing a sportsman’s respect for his opponents to the debate.
I repeat: There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. Ideas must be marketed, and right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company. That loses us a market segment at least as useful, if perhaps not as big.
Conservatives have never had, and never should have, a problem with elitism. Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?
Notice what Derbyshire is doing here. He’s not saying conservative talk radio is all bad, but he decries how it has been allowed to set the agenda for conservatism. Washington Republicans were pleased to encourage and to benefit from crude, lowbrow right-wingery from talk radio when it benefited them and energized the base to come out against the Democrats. But now it has been turned on them in the form of Donald Trump, who is the perfect right-wing talk radio candidate: all tabloid bluster. Rush Limbaugh is probably the only national conservative figure who stands a chance at standing athwart the Trump train and yelling “Stop!” without getting flattened. But that’s a small chance. A very small chance.
And the Republican Party did this to itself.
I wonder, though, if the secure middle-class people who are going hard for Trump really understand that the man has no governing principles, and because of his combative nature, could not get things done if elected. For people not driven by a sense of economic desperation or profound cultural alienation, a vote for Trump seems to be a manifestation of a much deeper decadence than we realized was there. It appears to be a perhaps more sophisticated version of the same longing for a magic man, a savior who will come to set things aright. Whether Trump is consistent or credible does not matter, any more than whether or not something that someone prefers to believe is true. Again, this is not just a phenomenon of the Right. For example, the fact that Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, did not die as some kind of martyr of police brutality has mattered not one whit to those enamored of the Black Lives Matter narrative.
We have become a nation unmoored. We think we can recreate reality by force of will, or by some kind of magic, or magician. The late Jacques Barzun believed that the West was decadent, and he defined decadence like this:
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths.
When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.
Futility as normal. The absurd as normal. Welcome to America 2016.
In the past week, in person and in e-mail, I have been struck by the number of people who have expressed to me their newfound belief that the Benedict Option, of which they had previously been skeptical, is the only constructive path going forward. That is, they say they had previously been skeptical, but that the Trump apocalypse — “apocalypse” in the strict sense of “unveiling” — has made them realize that things are much further gone in American culture than they thought. These are not, I think, people who are satisfied with the Republican status quo, but they had a sense that things were essentially on solid ground, and we could muddle through. They don’t really think this anymore. Cue Uncle Alasdair:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
I’ll leave you with this excerpt from a piece Caleb Stegall wrote back in 2006, as part of the National Review Online discussion of Crunchy Cons, recalled by Caleb in this Front Porch Republic post from 2009. Excerpt:
I see the authentically conservative posture of man towards reality as one of those natural things that becomes highly unnatural and potentially turned against itself when articulated. The problem seems especially acute among traditional economic, cultural, and religious communities in a highly mobilized, mechanized, and secularized state in which they have become conscious of what they have lost or are rapidly losing. Attempts to compensate, renew, or restore—whether given a leftist or rightist spin—increase the problem of over-articulation. Everyone has a theory and everyone chases the latest theorist. I do not have a high degree of hope for any version of movement conservatism, towards which I remain skeptical. I put much more stock in what amounts to monasticism, in the broadest sense, which includes all of the crunchy virtues Rod discusses and more, though in a very natural and inarticulate way. This would include the many lay movements in the Church, local economic coalitions, and various traditional cultures that do much more doing than speaking and theorizing. One does not need to theorize how to view and engage secular modernity if one daily concentrates on self-sacrifice, prayer, and simply doing the work of God and disciplining the body and mind to order themselves according to their place and heritage. [Emphasis mine — RD]
That last line is a perfect description of what the Tipiloschi, the Chestertonian group of Catholic laity in San Benedetto del Tronto, are doing, and how they approach life. They have not theorized the Benedict Option, not really. They are living it, and doing so in a fruitful, joyful, effective way. They are resilient and eminently sane, and they are going to be resilient through the days to come. According to their website, the Tipiloschi, co-founded by Marco Sermarini (see above) exist as “a friendship founded radically in Jesus Christ, through which to judge the events of life, and to help us in everyday circumstances — a friendship that does not remain closed in upon itself, but that generates works and widens to all the people you meet, taking care and helping them in their daily necessities. We want to live a faith that has to do with life.”
Theirs does — and believe me, they are not deceived about the nature of our post-Christian time. These Italians are the happiest, friendliest countercultural radicals I have ever seen. It’s incredible. “Tipiloschi,” the name they call themselves means, in English, “shady types” — a sign of their sense of humor. They think of themselves as Catholic hobbits. I can hardly wait to tell you more about them, in the book I’m writing. They are models for us Americans. The Tipiloschi are authentic conservatives, according to Caleb’s definition. I agree.
My point in bringing them up at the end of this long, rambling, depressing post is only this: Don’t despair. There is a way to live virtuously, happily, and well in these times, come what may. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I’ve seen it — and I’m going to show it to you.