Trump, Alienation, & the Benedict Option
I don’t think a lot about Donald Trump, but his enduring popularity is forcing me to look at the Trump phenomenon more broadly and deeply than I have been doing.
I had to laugh sympathetically at Steve Sailer’s notion of Trump’s Luck, which Sailer defines as “the pattern that whenever the national media announces that This Time, Trump Has Gone Too Far, the next day’s headlines will be about some outrage validating Trump’s general point.” Like so many of my fellow pundits, I have rolled my eyes at Trump all year, and figured he would be a footnote to the campaign by now. I watched his rally in Mobile this August, and could not understand why anybody would take this egotistical demagogue seriously. But here we are in December, and the man who was expected to be the GOP front runner, Jeb Bush, is in low single digits in the polls, despite all his money and GOP establishment cred, and Trump is dominating the race on the Right.
I commend to you again Noah Millman’s piece pointing out that Establishment politicians of the Left and Right are in many ways no better than Trump on the whole “fascist” thing. They just have a different way of talking about the things they do, to keep them respectable in polite society. In the end, I don’t believe that Trump is going to be the GOP nominee, and I believe that the American people will be forced to choose between a Democrat and a Republican who are the problem, not the solution. Don’t get me wrong here: Trump’s not a solution either. What his candidacy reveals, at least to me, is how little authority the US political establishment has.
Maybe there is no solution.
I’m starting to think there is no solution.
In fact, I am certain that there is no political solution to our fundamental problems, but politics can make things better or worse. What I find most interesting about the Trump phenomenon is what it reveals about the bankruptcy of credibility of the American center — its figures and institutions. I don’t know about you, but more and more, I feel that what happens in the inner rings of power — in Washington, but not only in Washington — may as well be occurring on another planet.
I have no expectation that our leaders will be responsive to people like me, or care about people like me. This doesn’t make me angry because for now, at least, I feel financially secure. I know, though, that many, many of my fellow Americans, including most of my friends, don’t have this luxury. And I also know that it could disappear overnight.
The farther I get down the road from the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, the more I appreciate how that experience left me deeply cynical about institutions — this, even as I recognize that every society needs authoritative institutions. What I saw over and over and over is the depraved indifference of the clerical class, especially the Catholic bishops, to the welfare of their people, especially the most vulnerable ones. You read some of the transcripts from trials, and the documents, and you cannot believe that men of God would be capable of doing such things. I’m not talking about the pervert priests, of whom there were a relatively small number. I’m talking about the bishops and other priests who, when confronted with this evil, refused to act, or to act meaningfully. They trusted in their own goodness, and in the acquiescence of the faithful.
It all blew up in their faces, as we know. For me, the entire experience left me unable to trust religious authority, even as I believe in its objective claims. That is, if I were still a Catholic, I would believe in the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, despite the failures of particular people within the institution. I am an Orthodox Christian, and believe that the Orthodox bishops have apostolic authority, though I have no reason to believe that on balance, they are any better than the Catholic bishops.
I confess: this is unfair to good bishops and others within the institutional churches. Note well that I am describing my own inability to trust as I once did.
It’s the same way with politics. I had so much faith in the good sense of the Republican Party and in the conservative governing vision. I didn’t expect them to be perfect, heaven knows, but I thought they — we — know what we were doing. But we did not know. And I see no evidence that the Republican Party has learned a damn thing from the catastrophic Bush administration. It cannot even articulate a convincing defense of the traditional family, or of religious liberty. I will likely end up voting Republican in the 2016 presidential race, only because I expect a GOP president would be better on the religious liberty issue than Hillary Clinton. But I will have no faith in that Republican president. I haven’t voted in the last two presidential elections because I had no faith that either party would make the country a better place than they found it.
I don’t have faith in the news media to be fair, though as a journalist, I probably have more faith in the media than I do in political institutions and religious institutions. I don’t have faith in colleges and universities, as a rule; with some clear exceptions that come to mind as I write this, I believe that they don’t exist for any reason other than to perpetuate themselves. And you know, maybe we the people are fine with this, as long as the universities give us our credentials — and here in Louisiana, produce a winning football team.
In short, I have come to believe that the institutions of American society have lost their telos. Let this excerpt from an article about the Catholic Church in the conservative Catholic magazine New Oxford Review stand for American institutions in general. It begins like this:
Late one Friday afternoon in the spring of 2001, my fiancée and I sat on a backless couch in a priest’s dusty office in an angular church in Columbus, Ohio, undergoing premarital counseling. The priest, a monsignor nearing retirement, had always struck me as the embodiment of the best of Irish-American Catholicism. His impeccably orthodox homilies proudly proclaimed the ideals of the faith but were openly skeptical about our ability to live up to them. Try to shock him and you would just get a raised eyebrow, one more line on an incredibly furrowed forehead. It was impossible to imagine him raising his voice or running his Masses a minute over or under his standard time — he was Hilaire Belloc’s ideal priest.
Most of that afternoon’s counseling session went exactly as I expected it to. The monsignor delivered sage and world-weary advice about resolving conflicts and handling finances in his cynical mid-American wheeze. Then we came to what is for many the question. “Do you understand the Catholic Church’s position on birth control?” he asked.
“Yes, I…,” I replied, leaning forward. I was about to exposit my own ideas about human sexuality and set them before an older, wiser, and obviously more objective authority. I imagined I was about to learn something.
But the monsignor immediately cut me off. “You already gave me the answer I needed. Don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to know; conscience and all that. It’s just on the list of things I have to ask.”
This experience has often struck me as emblematic of the state of American Catholicism around the turn of the twenty-first century. I was a member of a nervous and awkward Church that wished to know as little about the lives of her members as possible, an anonymous suburban organization where — as the Pew Forum has verified — the flock receive Communion habitually but confess rarely or not at all.
Could be that I’m too gloomy about things — I’m trying to be aware of my own biases and limitations here — but I bet that some version of the sentiment expressed in those paragraphs could apply to most of the institutions of American life. The malaise filling our political life is present throughout the public square.
This is why more and more I am committed to the Benedict Option — a strategic withdrawal into local community where I can learn how to pray, to serve, to love, to create, and to stay rooted in these tumultuous times. Once again, look at these lines from Alasdair MacIntyre, about the end of the Roman Empire in the West:
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.
It is hard to muster the wherewithal to maintain faith in the institutions of the imperium, even as we keep participating in them, without much passion or conviction, because nobody has a better idea. We will go on, in the present condition of what Tocqueville called “soft despotism,” and amid the rise out of soft despotism of what James Poulos terms the “pink police state”. Nearly everything that is coming is hostile to the survival of traditional Christianity and its sense of the human. However, we traditional Christians still, for now, have the freedom to create new ways of living in the world, and new institutions (MacIntyre’s “new forms of community”) like schools, and revitalize old structures (e.g., parish churches), within which to live out our faith together, to remember who we are, to fast and to feast, and to keep that memory of truth and beauty alive through whatever chaos and strife is to come. The Benedict Option, as I see it, offers us Christians the possibility of living out, in post-Christianity, both an individual and communal telos that leads us beyond ourselves and our passions, and give us the capacity to endure in faith, hope, and love, despite our political and cultural marginalization.
The persistence of Trump as a defining political personality is a sign of decadence and a canary in the coal mine. The answer is not to give up in despair, but rather to think, to pray, and to act within the possibilities that present themselves to us. This is a time for imagination. That is the realm in which I believe I have agency. That’s where my hope for the future lies.