Election Day Sobriety
Well, here we are. I don’t know why we are so worked up about this election, given that our new Insect Overlords are preparing their invasion, and soon enough, as prophesied, we’ll all be toiling in their underground sugar caves.
When they land, the Giant Space Ants will find a House turned Democratic, a Senate still Republican, and Trump still in place. I can live with that. For me, a non-Republican conservative, the only thing I really care about at this point are getting enough judges in place to form some kind of line of defense of religious and social conservatives in the years and decade to come. Trump has been a bad president, but after he goes, it’s going to mean the déluge for people like me. The undifferentiated wrath of the left is going to fall on Robert Jeffress and Russell Moore alike. Sooner or later, the spiteful spasms of injustice we all saw at the Kavanaugh hearings are going to have power in this country, and it is going to be a dark day for religious and social conservatives, whether they supported Trump or not.
It’s interesting to consider Ross Douthat’s two counterfactuals — that is, two scenarios under which, had Trump governed that way, the Democrats would have been on the ropes today. Excerpt:
Imagine that instead of just containing himself and behaving like a generic Republican, Trump had actually followed through on the populism that he promised in 2016, dragging his party toward the economic center and ditching the G.O.P.’s most unpopular ideas. Imagine that he followed through on Steve Bannon’s boasts about a big infrastructure bill instead of trying for Obamacare repeal; imagine that he listened to Marco Rubio and his daughter and tilted his tax cut more toward middle-class families; imagine that he spent more time bullying Silicon Valley into inshoring factory jobs than whining about Fake News; imagine that he made lower Medicare drug prices a signature issue rather than a last-minute pre-election gambit.
This strategy could have easily cut the knees out from under the Democrats’ strongest appeal, their more middle-class-friendly economic agenda, and highlighted their biggest liability, which is the way the party’s base is pulling liberalism way left of the middle on issues of race and culture and identity. It would have given Trump a chance to expand his support among minorities while holding working-class whites, and to claim the kind of decisive power that many nationalist leaders around the world enjoy. It would have threatened liberalism not just with more years out of power, but outright irrelevance under long-term right-of-center rule.
But instead all the Trumpy things that keep the commentariat in a lather and liberals in despair — the Twitter authoritarianism and white-identity appeals, the chaos and lying and Hannity-and-friends paranoid style — have also kept the Democrats completely in the game.
Indeed there is an odd symbiosis between the liberal analysts who muster 16 regression analyses to prove that Midwesterners who voted twice for the first black president and then voted for Trump were white supremacists all along, and Trump’s own instinctive return to race-baiting in the final weeks of this campaign. Both ascribe more power than is merited to purely-racialized appeals, and both are in denial about something that seems pretty obvious — that a real center-right majority could be built on economic populism and an approach to national identity that rejects both wokeness and white nationalism.
But it’s the president’s denial that’s more politically costly for his party. If left-wing Twitter were running Democratic strategy while Donald Trump talked about infrastructure and drug prices, 2018 might seal a conservative-populist realignment.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. In the next Congress, the Democratic House is going to be doing all it can to sabotage Trump, and keep him focused on impeachment fears. Nothing substantive is going to get done legislatively, which may not be such a bad thing (but then again, this administration has had no legislative agenda anyway). The Democrats are going to keep administration officials mired in Congressional investigations for the next two years. Judge confirmation, which does not require the House, are about the only things that will get done without much of a hitch.
And then it will be 2020. You’d have to be a fool to predict US politics that far out, in this volatile environment, but if Trump continues to do what he’s done these past two years, it’s difficult to see that his own side will be able to muster the enthusiasm to keep him stronger than the enthusiasm on the other side to throw him out. To be clear, I didn’t vote for him in 2016 (or for Hillary), but I can foresee circumstances under which I would vote for him in 2020. I’ve voted for a repulsive, corrupt politician before — Edwin W. Edwards — to keep someone worse (David Duke) out of office. But after four years of this reality-show presidency, I think a lot of independents will just be tired of the drama.
Of course given that all the energy now on the left is with the progressives, not the moderates, there’s a significant chance — I’d say it’s likely, in fact — that the Democratic left will overreach, and nominate a militant. In which case the country will exchange one deeply divisive figure for another one. David Brooks takes the long view in his column today. Excerpt:
Here’s the central challenge of our age: Over the next few decades, America will become a majority-minority country. It is hard to think of other major nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together.
It seems that the Democratic Party is going to lead us through this transition. The Republicans have decided to pretend it’s not happening. Trump had a chance to build a pan-ethnic nationalist coalition but went with white identity politics instead. Republicans have rendered themselves irrelevant to the great generational challenge before us.
But if the Democrats are going to lead this transition, they’ll need not just a mind-set that celebrates diversity, but also a mind-set that creates unity. They’ll need policies that integrate different groups into a coherent nation, with shared projects, a common language and culture and clear borders.
If you don’t offer people a positive, uplifting nationalism, they will grab the nasty one. History and recent events have shown us that.
I think it’s going to be all but impossible for the Democrats to come up with a unifying nationalism, precisely because their mindset is so heavily focused on identity-politics grievance. Douthat imagined a scenario in which Trump could have done at least a rudimentary version of this on the right, by focusing on populist economic issues. He didn’t do it because his heart isn’t in it, and besides, the nastiness comes naturally to him. The point is, it could have been done. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t believe that the Democrats have within them the “mindset” (Brooks’s word) to pull this off. Where are the rewards for it? The media constantly slam Trump for practicing white identity politics, but they typically fail to grasp that the left’s “celebrate diversity” mindset, along with the aggressive call-out culture among younger progressives, is the mirror image of Trump’s. You cannot build a movement in which cisgendered Christian white males are the totemic hate figure, and expect to unify the country.
If I had to bet, I’d wager that the Democrats are going to win the White House in 2020, and retain the House. The Senate? Who knows. It’s not a nightmare scenario for Republicans, but if the anti-Trump wave is strong enough, it could turn blue. Whether it does or it doesn’t, a Democratic administration, especially with a fully Democratic Congress behind it, would be fired up to exact vengeance — and they’ll go hard left on immigration, abortion, and all the culture war issues. In that case, it is hard to conceive of a situation in which the Trump base didn’t feel besieged, because they actually will be. It is even harder to conceive of a situation in which a defeated Trump refused to go around rousing up his followers to reject the result of the election, which would be an extremely dangerous, indescribably selfish thing to do. You know good and well that he’d do it, too.
Anyway, the Balkanization of America will continue, whatever the results at the ballot box. Both parties will be to blame. Last weekend at Notre Dame, I heard someone making a standard criticism of The Benedict Option, which went something like, “Those little communities need the power of the state to protect them” — the implication being that if the state is hostile to them, they won’t exist. This is precisely why I wrote in the actual book that traditional Christians have to stay involved to some degree in partisan politics, if only to protect religious liberty.
If we get to a situation in which the state actively opposes us — and that’s what will happen the next time the Democrats take the White House, especially if Congress is also Democratic — then we Christians will see the need for Benedict Option communities and ways of living. No serious Christians are going to surrender their way of life just because the state is pressuring them. In my book, I write about the things the Benda family of Prague did to preserve the faith and the works of civilization under hard-core persecution. Even I don’t see something as vicious as that coming to our country, but make no mistake: sooner or later, the government here will pass into the hands of militant left-wing secularists, and we conservative religious believers will face great difficulties.
Are we ready for that? No, we are not. If you don’t vote with this scenario in mind, you’re in denial. But if all you do is vote, you’re in even worse denial. We have to use the time we have now to build the networks, the institutions, the practices, and the mindset that will give us resilience in the face of what’s coming.