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The Permanent Crisis

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Conservative writer Erick Erickson:

This is not sustainable. Something is going to have to give. I do not know what, but something will give. The nation cannot sustain this constant state of chaos and crisis drift for three and a half more years. We will either see external or internal forces applied that will hurt the nation.

This is not sustainable and if the President cannot figure out how to operate, he needs to step aside. Instead, he thrives on the chaos, the punch back, and media yes men telling him nothing is wrong and his poop does not stink. But while the President thrives, every day a piece of our national unity dies. And I don’t care whether you blame the left for refusing to acknowledge the President’s presidency or you blame the President for refusing to behave as you think a President should — this situation is not sustainable regardless of where blame lies.

And:

The white supremacists are actually small in number and hated by everyone (except possibly the President and Steve Bannon). But Antifa is as violent and loved by the left, or at least tolerated. The President and Antifa both on the national stage is a toxic combination and as neither will be departing any time soon, the nation itself will atrophy in prestige and ability.

Personally, I’m thinking of expanding my garden, filling my freezer, and stockpiling ammo. Something wicked this way comes and it is almost here.

When I started writing The Benedict Option, I did so expecting a Hillary Clinton victory. As my longtime readers know, I’ve been writing about the Benedict Option for over a decade, starting in the George W. Bush presidency. Like just about everybody else, I anticipated that our next president would be Mrs. Clinton, and that the rollback of religious liberty would continue.

Well, you know what happened next. I had to do some quick rewriting. In the book, I said that orthodox Christians should not assume that because Donald Trump won, everything would be fine. For one thing, he is very far from thinking and behaving like a Christian. But more importantly, even if Trump were a saint, he could not hold back the forces that have been building for a long time, and that are fast unraveling our culture and civilization. At best, a Trump presidency gives us a few more years to prepare for the inevitable.

There’s some dark chaos in the air. Trump is accelerating it, for sure, but he is by no means the only one. Read John Michael Greer’s short essay on how “hate is the new sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Matthew Continetti has a good piece about the dynamics tearing the country apart politically. He begins by talking about how Trump is dividing is own party, as well as factions within the nation at large. And:

Making things more complicated is the fact that there are more than these two parties. Drutman also found divisions within the Democrats. “To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions.” The Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton is satisfied with the status quo, and uses identity politics as a veneer for economic policies that benefit Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and multinational corporations. What we might call the party of Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is both more radical on questions of political correctness and identity and hostile to the established order. The party of Sanders wants radical change. Beginning with Medicare for all.

Recent events have brought to light the distinction between the party of Trump and the GOP. But it would be foolish for Democrats to believe that they are out of the woods, that America has settled, for the moment, on a three-party system. What we have are four parties: The mainstream Republicans, the party of Trump, the mainstream Democrats, and the party of Sanders. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s bizarre call to the editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine can be seen as a clumsy attempt to forge a new majority by rejecting the mainstream Republicans and aligning with the party of Sanders on trade, entitlements, and infrastructure spending. But the effort is doomed to fail. In twenty-first century America culture and identity take precedence over economics, and it is in regards to culture and identity that the true break between left and right is found.

President Trump’s isolation from the party whose nomination he wrested from insiders and scions is just part of a larger trend in American society and politics. The widening divisions within and between parties are symptoms of our fractured republic, of the unbundling, disaggregation, and dissociation of our communal lives. Mounting political violence, too, is a consequence of the polarization that estranges Americans from one another and turns every disagreement into an apocalyptic battle royal. Trump, McConnell, Pelosi, and Sanders are pulling the mystic cords of memory in four different directions. And they won’t quit doing so. Until the cords snap.

It is striking how so many people are eager to exacerbate our divisions for political gain. As Continetti indicates, Steve Bannon has a theory that if he can get culture-war Democrats distracted by race, he can forge a new coalition. He told the liberal editor Robert Kuttner that it makes him happy to see all the fighting over statues, because in theory, it makes it possible for him to get done what he wants to get done. The best spin you can put on that is that it’s breathtakingly cynical. But now we have this from the other side:

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You do know, I trust, that in all the years that Nancy Pelosi was House speaker, she never said a peep about those abominable Confederate statues. But now she can energize her base with it, so here we are.

 

Trump will say or do something outrageous today that will ratchet up the tension. And then his enemies will respond in kind. It’s all starting to bring to mind this passage from the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, describing the Weimar Republic:

Theatricality appeared to be the common denominator of all manifestations of life – from Expressionism to Marlene Dietrich’s spectacular legs in Blue Angel; from the bloody comedy of Hitler’s 1923 putsch to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera; from the impressive funeral of Rathenau to the calculated banditry of the Reichstag fire of 1933. The permanent crisis proved to be an excellent metteur en scene, one who knew how to direct quite a few memorable effects.

Another Sloterdijk passage, which to me suggests Trump and what he stands for:

Fatally, the term “barbarian” is the password that opens up the archives of the twentieth century. It refers to the despiser of achievement, the vandal, the status denier, the iconoclast, who refuses to acknowledge any ranking rules or hierarchy. Whoever wishes to understand the twentieth century must always keep the barbaric factor in view. Precisely in more recent modernity, it was and still is typical to allow an alliance between barbarism and success before a large audience, initially more in the form of insensitive imperialism, and today in the costumes of that invasive vulgarity which advances into virtually all areas through the vehicle of popular culture. That the barbaric position in twentieth-century Europe was even considered the way forward among the purveyors of high culture for a time, extending to a messianism of uneducatedness, indeed the utopia of a new beginning on the clean slate of ignorance, illustrates the extent of the civilizatory crisis this continent has gone through in the last century and a half – including the cultural revolution downwards, which runs through the twentieth century in our climes and casts its shadow ahead onto the twenty-first.

We have not yet seen a left-wing Trump, but we will. That’s because Trump is far less a producer of this decadent culture than a product of the decadent culture. That’s why I write in The Benedict Option that he is no cure for the disease, but rather a symptom of it.

For quite some time now we have had the performative malice of right-wing talk radio hosts, manipulating the emotions of their listeners for the sake of ratings and political success. (John Derbyshire wrote well about this a few years ago, for TAC.) Today we have Milo’s campus cabaret. On the Left, we have had for years to deal with the operatic rituals of political correctness, which entered into a new, more hysterical stage in 2015. People on both sides are enjoying this hate. With shared standards abandoned, people are reverting to tribalism, one aspect of which is finding unity and purpose in rallying against a common enemy.

I suppose this is to be expected in a culture of emotivism, in which people come to think of truth as what feels good to them. We didn’t become emotivists the day before yesterday. This has been building in our culture for decades, and it is a natural extension of a core quality of the American character: individualism. On both the Left and the Right, we exalt the individual and his preferences. We do this in our different ways, with emphases on different aspects of the individual. But we all do it. Identity politics is what you get when people cease to try to get outside of their heads, and strive to live by ideals of the common good, and instead limit their politics solely to what’s good for them and their tribe. It is perfectly ordinary politics to contend for one’s own interests, but what makes identity politics so toxic is that it distorts political reality by decontextualizing the individual. That is to say, we stop thinking about how we, and our kind, relate to the whole, and focus entirely on ourselves and our desires.

In fact, we have come to think of our desires as defining our own identities. The Left pushes this farthest, of course, as we can see with its dogmatic insistence that if someone claims to be a woman or a man, then they are, despite biology. We see this in the Left’s obsession with race, sex, and gender categories. Sometimes it seems that the only people in this country as obsessed with whiteness as white nationalists is the campus Left.

But I think the identity politics curse affects all of us. To be an identitarian is to start statements with formulations like, “Speaking as a Latinx lesbian…,” and to believe that assertion is the same thing as argument. To dispute them, they believe, is to deny their personhood. If that is true, then democracy is impossible.

I have never heard people on the Right talk in precisely those terms, but I have heard the same manner of thinking — or rather, not thinking, emotion — manifested often on the Right. It’s as if we (whoever constitutes “we”) are the only real people, and everybody else is an abstraction that keeps us from getting what we want. And make no mistake: for identitarians of the Left and the Right, what we want is what we deserve.

The center cannot hold, I fear. The forces tearing us apart are greater than the forces holding us together. Both Left and Right are going to snap the cords.

And now Steve Bannon is gone. Don’t think for a moment that is going to make any difference.

I’m with Erick Erickson. One reason I promote the Benedict Option concept is so faithful Christians can keep their heads in what we’re living through now, and in what’s to come.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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