Thanks to the reader who put me onto Paul Berman’s essay explaining Donald Trump’s rise as a manifestation of cultural collapse. Berman says that yes, economics explains part of Trump’s rise, as does white working class grievance. But neither of these are sufficient. He says that there has to be something else behind the radical abandonment of traditional American norms, as embodied in President Trump. Excerpts:
A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.
But I have to acknowledge that what is obvious to me is invisible to others. Even some of the people who would have preferred someone else in the White House have come to look upon Trump the way that Mike Pence pretends to do, as a conservative American politician with a clever and unconventional style, and not as any sort of Mussolinian con man at all. And yet, to my eyes, this is the sign of the cultural collapse—this, the truly worrisome development, which will outlast Trump.
How exactly to define a cultural collapse? How to identify and investigate it? I put the question to Thomas B. Edsall and the scholars he has been quoting and summarizing. I ask them: isn’t there a matter of civic education and understanding to be discussed, together with the matters that are economic, sociological and political? Mightn’t the matter of civic understanding prove to be more fundamental than any of those other matters? A further question: If we are facing a collapse in the civic culture, shouldn’t we come up with policy goals to address the collapse? Shouldn’t liberals be promoting a wave of popular education on themes of American civilization and the nature of democracy? And a wave of elite education? I grant that civic education may sound like less than a revolutionary goal, but we students of the history of democracy know that, on the contrary, civic education is absolutely a revolutionary goal—maybe the deepest and most glorious revolutionary goal of all.
I think he’s onto something profound. Notice that Berman is talking about a collapse of republican cultural norms — that is to say, the norms necessary for self-government. He’s not claiming that until Trump, American politics at the national level was Periclean Athens. He’s saying that until Trump, a president with Trump’s public character was unthinkable. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, what happens when even the appearance of virtue is discarded?
There’s a connection, I’m sure, between what Berman sees and what C.R. Wiley sees when he examines why more and more young Americans are enamored of socialism. At bottom, he says, it’s all about fear. Excerpts:
The modern world is all about liberating people. Tradition, family, local communities, even nature–they’re all so oppressive. They foist expectations on us, things we didn’t choose, or they constrain us in some way. Freeing us from all of that is what Classical Liberalism was about.
Now that’s not entirely right. Classical liberals always knew that taking this too far has the paradoxical effect of setting the stage for tyranny. Traditions, families, churches, even nature itself, were all thought to be schools of virtue that would help people to exercise freedom responsibly.
Very few people see things this way today. Instead we have freedom unbounded and on steroids. “Ordered liberty” sounds like an oxymoron. We’re not supposed to submit to anything; we’re supposed to define reality itself–each and everyone one of us–for ourselves. That very few people seem to see that this leads to chaos is very telling. Either people lack imagination, experience, or an ability to reason things out. I suspect all three are the case.
The result is most people live among the ruins of their own culture. But they lack the good sense to see that this is a problem. And this is where the fear comes in. People have a sense of vulnerability that they just can’t shake. The reason, of course, is when you’ve knocked down traditions, and religion, and family, and local communities, you’re pretty much on your own. You may try to surround yourself with friends, or submerge yourself in social media, but basically you’re just holding the hands of people who are just as lonely and afraid as you are.
What people really long for today is a feeling of security without the inconvenience of commitment.
Read the whole thing. It’s short, and it’s worth it.
Could it be that a lot of Trump’s vote came from people who are living with this same kind of fear, and who find it easier to vote for an authoritarian leader to “fix” things rather than try to rebuild it themselves?
I respect Paul Berman’s writing, but his suggestion that liberals need to meet this crisis with “civic education” is risible. The left has torn down or otherwise delegitimized the mediating institutions that were supposed to educate us in responsible self-government! (The right’s hands aren’t clean either, given its ideological worship of the market.) You have to read Arthur Milikh’s sobering meditation on civility and “rebarbarization.” In it, he dwells on John Adams’s understanding that a self-governing nation of laws depended on the character of its people, and their ability to govern themselves. This, by the way, is why Adams famously wrote that our Constitution is only suited for a moral and religious people. Excerpt:
Adams portrays civilized man as being in a state of civil war with himself, divided between the natural impulses toward self-important anger on the one hand, and some degree of subordination or obedience to external authority on the other. Reason is naturally weak in the mind, out of which arises the need for external authorities — divine rule, supplemented by the law — to maintain the psychological balance necessary for citizens. Maintaining this balance is the art of statesmanship, an art today regrettably replaced by our view of government as an entity primarily charged with implementing a list of “policy solutions.”
Some evidence points to the possibility of rebarbarization today. Lawmakers should carefully consider how discrete laws, policies, or doctrines might foster barbaric tendencies in the human character, and should better recognize the fragility of the status quo. Our nation’s unity, commercial productivity, and dignity depend on the endurance of our civilized order. Contra the claims of cosmopolitans, liberation from the law will not reveal inner, self-directing decency. Our civility has been achieved only with great difficulty — citizens’ passions have been trained through prudent laws applied over the course of generations. Civility is not a stable, permanent state. A return to barbarism is always possible.
Maintaining civility in our time will entail, among other things, the protection and cultivation of religions suitable for republicanism. Serious people must rethink the popular, dogmatic opinion that religion is a relic of a bygone era. The Christian God, for Adams, helped to humble individuals who believed they were gods. Similarly, according to Adams, good governments moderate and tutor the violent passions of men who think they are gods. As Alexander Hamilton observed while studying Plutarch, religion “could alone have sufficient empire over the minds of a barbarous and warlike people to engage them to cultivate the arts of peace.” While religion helped bring about our civility, one wonders whether civility can be preserved should we lose it.
The idea that what ails us can be cured by civics class — honestly, the naivete of that it almost touching. That the left would be willing to teach American history and ideals as something more than a tale of white supremacist patriarchy is hard to believe. But it’s also easy to imagine the ideologically right-wing version of civics: “100 percent Americanism,” manifest destiny, and the lot.
It’s not about civics. It’s about character, which is to say, ultimately, about religion. The French agnostic writer Michel Houellebecq, following the 19th century positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, believes that a society has to have some kind of religion if it is going to survive. Comte, an atheist, invented an ersatz “religion of humanity” that went nowhere. But that doesn’t mean Comte was wrong in his original insight.
Anyway, Paul Berman and I can agree on this, at least, from The Benedict Option:
Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that the robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America ’ s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.