Trump, Clinton, And Twilight America
The two candidates are almost laboratory specimens for each side of the struggle. Donald Trump is the anti-everything, not-a-politician politician, whose outlandish statements horrify opponents but bemuse his considerable base of support. At his best, Trump expresses the legitimate frustration of the public with institutions that promise the world yet deliver mostly failure. At his worst and most typical, he is the political equivalent of the vandal in the museum, willing to rip apart traditional arrangements and commitments because he has no clue about their value.
For her part, Clinton is the very model of a modern time-server – a politician whose features have congealed into an institutional mask and whose statements are a hymn to the status quo, to the vast reassurance of her followers and predictable outrage of the antis. At her best, she represents the voice of grown-up responsibility touching US commitments at home and abroad. But at her worst and most typical, Clinton behaves like a divine rights monarch in search of her electoral Versailles, above the law and mere bourgeois morality.
He goes on to say that the real lesson of this election is that the decay of our institutions and their authority has progressed much further than most of us imagined. The rise of Trump is not really a revolt on the right as it is a revelation of what a paper tiger the GOP establishment is. Trump hasn’t killed it; it was dead already, as Jeb Bush’s stillborn candidacy showed (says Gurri). More:
In somewhat slower motion than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is unbundling into dozens of political war bands, each focused with monomaniacal intensity on a particular cause – feminism, the environment, anti-capitalism, pro-immigration, racial or sexual grievance. This process, scarcely veiled by the gravitational attraction of President Obama and Clinton herself, will become obvious to the most casual observer the moment the Democrats lose the White House.
After all, Gurri says, an elderly, marginal Vermont socialist won 40 percent of the vote against the greatest living embodiment of the Democratic Party establishment.
Gurri goes on to say the strongest political forces on both left and right are those who “have become unmoored from history.”
The thrust of political passion, here and everywhere, is toward a republic of purity and virtue: a blank slate. The voices of moderation and keepers of our political traditions have been cowed into silence. They have nothing of interest to say in any case.
Read the whole thing. Last year, Virginia Postrel wrote about Gurri’s “Fifth Wave” theory of how the digital information revolution is overthrowing old hierarchies. Excerpts from her column:
Information used to be scarce. Now it’s overwhelming. In his book “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium,” Gurri considers the political implications of this change. He argues that the shift from information scarcity to abundance has destroyed the public’s established trust in institutional authorities, including media, science, religion, and government.
“Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust,” Gurri writes. Someone somewhere will expose every error, every falsehood, every biased assessment, every overstated certainty, every prejudice, every omission — and likely offer a contrary and equally refutable version of their own.
That is a powerful observation, and a true one. Over a decade ago, in the first wave of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, a journalist friend e-mailed to say that he was glad all that had been hidden was now coming to light, thanks to the Internet — but he also wondered if any of our institutions could survive this media environment we had entered into, with the Internet. That was exactly the right question, as is far clearer today. That, it appears, is the basis for Gurri’s theory. As Gurri makes clear, it’s not that these institutions will be quickly destroyed by the inability to control information, but rather that they will hemorrhage authority over time.
Back to Postrel. Gurri is no radical, but rather, in his own words, is an “uncomplicated defender of our system of government.” But, writes Postrel, Gurri also knows from his long career in the CIA how much butt-covering and other forms of mutual protection and shielding from accountability exists within institutions and organizations. The problem we all face is that we expect more of our institutions than they can deliver, and when they can’t, we assume that it’s only because they are horribly corrupt.
I get that. I was telling someone not long ago that a decade on after losing my Catholic faith, I recognize that I had done something that many of my Catholic friends who were as angry at the institutional church as I was had not done: expected more from the Church than it could deliver. The problem with this is that it is far, far too easy for people to grow cynical and tolerant of things that ought not be tolerated. On the other hand, my idealism laid the groundwork for the unraveling of my Catholicism. When I entered the Orthodox Church, I made a deliberate decision to have not one jot more trust in the institution than I had to for the maintenance of my faith (e.g., trusting in the validity of the sacraments). This was instinctive, but also wise. I find myself much less shaken by clerical scandals now.
That move may have kept me from having unrealistic expectations of the institutional church, but it did nothing to restore much faith in the institution as a political entity. I’m not talking about electoral politics. I’m talking about politics in the more basic sense of the way any group of people governs itself. In the past, I would have given the church (Catholic, Orthodox, whatever) the presumption of trust. Now, my reflexive stance is one of suspicion and skepticism. An Orthodox priest who had seen how the sausage is made near the top once said to me that the further away one is from the upper levels of the hierarchy, the easier it is to be steadfast in one’s faith. I have heard similar statements from Christians in other churches. It is no doubt true of all institutions, because institutions are administered by humans.
Thing is, though, every society needs institutions to function, and moreover, it needs to have basic confidence in its institutions to function. It’s not that people have to believe that the institutions are perfect. They do have to believe that the institutions can be trusted to be sound, to be governed by just and competent people. When institutions lose that basic level of credibility, it’s very, very hard to earn back. It is also very, very hard for people within the leadership class of institutions to grasp when trust in their leadership is eroding. This is the story of the Republican Party this year. If Gurri is correct, it is, or eventually will be, the story of all institutions in the age of total information.
Eminent Victorian Walter Bagehot’s famous observation about the importance of keeping the monarchy shrouded in mystery — “We must not let in daylight upon magic” — for the sake of preserving its authority remains true. The more you see of how an authoritative institution works, the harder it will likely be for it to maintain its authority. On the other hand, as we’ve seen, institutions don’t have nearly the power to keep the daylight out that they once did.
It is worth contemplating, though, that in some cases, the more information we have about the workings of a particular institution, the less we may know about its true nature. I wrote about that here. This is a real problem for us today, one I think few of us grasp. For example, the more we learn about the way legislative politics really works in Washington, the harder it is to trust and respect the institutions of our government. Knowledge, though, is more than the accumulation of facts. A three-ring binder filled with accounts of gross incompetence and corruption on Capitol Hill by no means tells the story of the incredible achievements of our constitutional democracy, and why they are so important to cherish and defend. A hundred thousand venal clerics do not outweigh a single St. Francis — but St. Francis is as much a product of the Church as they are. And so on.
But I digress.
Back to Postrel’s column on Martin Gurri. Gurri says that Barack Obama ran as an outsider in 2008, and, interestingly, ran again as an outsider in 2012. It is well known in Washington that the president has remained largely aloof from Congress, and that this has hurt his effectiveness in the nuts and bolts of governing. Postrel, writing in December 2015:
Obama, Gurri suggests, “represented a new and disconcerting development in democratic politics: the conquest of the Center by the Border, and the rise of the sectarian temper to the highest positions of power.” It’s easy to imagine a President Ted Cruz, representing a different brand of border sectarian, pursuing a similar approach.
Then there’s Donald Trump. By stoking magical thinking about what government can do, elite distrust of what the public wants, and sectarian rage at government failures, Trump feeds the nihilism that makes this period of transition so perilous. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
That last paragraph holds up quite well in late October 2016.
Where does the Benedict Option fit into Gurri’s theory? Or, more to the point, I’ve been talking about this Ben Op idea since at least 2006 (it’s the last chapter of Crunchy Cons), so why didn’t it really take off until 2015-16? My guess is that for whatever reason or reasons, a critical mass of people began to sense that the fabric of society really was unraveling (this is Gurri’s general view, as you’ve seen). For orthodox Christians, the 2015 Indiana RFRA debacle and Obergefell were tipping points at which Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis (whether or not they had ever heard of him) began to make intuitive sense.
As readers will see when The Benedict Option comes out in March, the general idea addresses a world that, for Christians, is fast crumbling. What do we do when the old structures barely stand? To be precise, for orthodox Roman Catholics (for example), there’s no question that the Roman Catholic institution still maintains its divinely granted authority. That’s what it means to be a Roman Catholic. They aren’t questioning that authority. But in far too many cases, orthodox Catholics can no longer trust their local parishes, their Catholic schools, and their Catholic universities to teach and uphold the Catholic faith, or at least not in a way that is coherent and persuasive. Additionally, orthodox Catholics in far too many cases can no longer trust their fellow Catholics to do the same. (Understand, I’m not singling out Catholics; this is more or less true for all small-o orthodox Christians in the West today.) Philip Rieff wrote:
The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.
By that standard, Christian culture in the West is fast approaching the rigor mortis state. This fact is concealed from most Christians today, in both the leadership and the followership classes, because they haven’t thought to notice the signs, or they have noticed the signs, but prefer not to think about them. If you’re a believing orthodox Christian, what do you do? The answer will look different depending on your own faith tradition (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), and your own local circumstances. The point is, though, that you have to do something, and do something radical, to preserve ways of living out the faith that can endure and thrive through the tumultuous time of transition.
The Benedict Option is not, and must not be, an attempt to establish what Gurri calls “a republic of purity and virtue.” Purity and virtue are ideals to which we should strive, but in Gurri’s case, he’s talking about the delusions of utopianism. Rather, the Ben Op tries to establish local outposts of fidelity and resilience. There’s a great line from the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, written in the 1930s, in which he suggested how believers living in the unraveling of the West — which was well underway by that time — should organize themselves communally to resist. Maritain refused the political militancy of Charles Maurras’ Action Française movement, a far-right Catholic nationalist force condemned in 1926 by the Vatican. From Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:
Here is a link to an English translation of the 1939 Maritain essay that introduced his idea of integral humanism. Note this passage in particular:
Note well the relevance of this to our own time and place. Maritain says that “the primacy of the spiritual” over the political is key. If we use un-Christian means to defend and restore Christianity, we will fail. It is more important to maintain the steadfast witness of the Christian spirit than the “outer apparel of a Christian order, especially when those who pretend to save this order bind themselves, and also the order, either to established injustice of even to the immense pagan energies sweeping away one part of the actual world.”
The renewal of religious (Christian) conscience must precede the renewal of politics. This is a fundamental principle of the Benedict Option. I heard an echo of Maritain’s vision in Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (watch it here). The world that has been unraveling since before Maritain’s time is reaching a crisis point, as Gurri says, and all manner of people will be re-binding the tatters into tight knots, hard as a fist.
We orthodox Christians are going to have to re-bind too, and in forms strong enough to withstand the forces trying to tear us apart from our faith, our history, and each other. But to be true to our faith, we are not free to do this according to the patterns emerging in this world. The barbarians continue to sack the fallen imperial city, and even if it were desirable, it is not going to be possible to shore it up. We have to ask: What would Saint Benedict do if he were living among us today? We are not going to be able to build a fortress in a field, because a fortress mentality is not authentically Christian. This is why we have to seek instead to deploy an army of stars against the darkening sky.
The election next month will resolve only one question: who will sit in the White House for the next four years. The unraveling will continue. Christian or not, right, left, and otherwise, you had better be ready for it.
UPDATE:See Ben Domenech’s essay about this stuff. Excerpt:
Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.
The point is that while conservative intellectuals have their problems, this is much bigger than anything having to do with conservative intellectuals. The aims of conservatives, whether they are the “populist” or “intellectual” sort (an unsatisfying frame, given that Reagan was both), depends on a certain level of societal flourishing.