Writing in Politico, Georgetown political scientist Joshua Mitchell has a long, important take on the deep meaning of Trump — and it’s probably not what you think. If you’re a Trump-hater of the Left, or a #NeverTrump partisan of the Right, you need to read this. He says we really are at the turn of a new era in US politics, because of forces beyond Trump. Here’s how it opens:
Ideas really don’t come along that often. Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, “ideas are a sort of mental dust,” that float about us but seldom cohere or hold our attention. For ideas to take hold, they need to be comprehensive and organizing; they need to order people’s experience of themselves and of their world. In 20th-century America, there were only a few ideas: the Progressivism of Wilson; Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Containment Doctrine of Truman; Johnson’s War on Poverty; Reagan’s audacious claim that the Cold War could be won; and finally, the post-1989 order rooted in “globalization” and “identity politics,” which seems to be unraveling before our eyes.
Yes, Donald Trump is implicated in that unraveling, cavalierly undermining decades worth of social and political certainties with his rapid-fire Twitter account and persona that only the borough of Queens can produce. But so is Bernie Sanders. And so is Brexit. And so are the growing rumblings in Europe, which are all the more dangerous because there is no exit strategy if the European Union proves unsustainable. It is not so much that there are no new ideas for us to consider in 2016; it is more that the old ones are being taken apart without a clear understanding of what comes next. 2016 is the year of mental dust, where notions that stand apart from the post-1989 order don’t fully cohere. The 2016 election will be the first—but not last—test of whether they can.
If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics is inconceivable—must be repudiated.
These six ideas together point to an end to the unstable experiment with supra- and sub-national sovereignty that many of our elites have guided us toward, siren-like, since 1989. That is what the Trump campaign, ghastly though it may at times be, leads us toward: A future where states matter. A future where people are citizens, working together toward (bourgeois) improvement of their lot. His ideas do not yet fully cohere. They are a bit too much like mental dust that has yet to come together. But they can come together. And Trump is the first American candidate to bring some coherence to them, however raucous his formulations have been.
Mitchell goes on to say that political elites call Trump “unprincipled,” and perhaps they’re right: that he only does what’s good for Trump. On the other hand, maybe Trump’s principles are not ideological, but pragmatic. That is, Trump might be a quintessential American political type: the leader who gets into a situation and figures out how to muddle through. Or, as Mitchell puts it:
This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is unprincipled; it means rather that he doesn’t believe that yet another policy paper based on conservative “principles” is going to save either America or the Republican Party.
Also, Mitchell says that there are no doubt voters in the Trump coalition who are nothing but angry, provincial bigots. But if anti-Trumpers convince themselves that that’s all the Trump voters are, they will miss something profoundly important about how Western politics are changing because of deep instincts emerging from within the body politic:
What is going on is that “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” is being boldly challenged. Inside the Beltway, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is scarcely any evidence of this challenge. There are people in those places who will vote for Trump, but they dare not say it, for fear of ostracism. They think that identity politics has gone too far, or that if it hasn’t yet gone too far, there is no principled place where it must stop. They believe that the state can’t be our only large-scale political unit, but they see that on the post-1989 model, there will, finally, be no place for the state. Out beyond this hermetically sealed bicoastal consensus, there are Trump placards everywhere, not because citizens are racists or homophobes or some other vermin that needs to be eradicated, but because there is little evidence in their own lives that this vast post-1989 experiment with “globalization” and identity politics has done them much good.
There’s lots more here, including his prediction of what’s going to happen to the GOP.
Read the whole thing. I do want to take some issue with this bit, though:
There are, then, two developments we are likely to see going forward. First, cultural conservatives will seriously consider a political “Benedict Option,” dropping out of the Republican Party and forming a like-minded Book Group, unconcerned with winning elections and very concerned with maintaining their “principles.” Their fidelity is to Aristotle rather than to winning the battle for the political soul of America. …
Clearly he disdains the Ben Op, and I can’t really blame him too much. The book is not out yet — coming March 2017; click here to pre-order — so the only thing anyone knows about the Ben Op is what he or she has seen on this blog, which has not presented it in a systematic way. The book (the manuscript of which I’m revising now) does that. Mitchell and others still may not like the ideas — I expect most political scientists won’t — but it’s very much not a “Book Group” approach to politics.
Without giving too much away here, let me say that I make a case that the things that conservative Christians (and other social conservatives) care about most are no longer achievable through democratic politics, if ever they were. The Ben Op does not call for Christians to quit voting, or to quit running for office, or to quit caring what happens in the political arena. We can’t afford to be political quietists. On a practical level, that means that I will no longer vote primarily on the social issues that have dictated my vote in the past, but I will vote primarily for candidates who will be better at protecting my community’s right to be left alone. This will almost always mean voting for the Republicans in national elections, but in a primary situation, I will vote for the Republican who can best be counted on to defend religious liberty, even if he’s not 100 percent on board with what I consider to be promoting the Good. If it means voting for a Republican that the defense hawks or the Chamber of Commerce disdain, I have no problem at all with that. This is a particularly orthodox Christian expression of the attitude Mitchell describes as no longer believing “that yet another policy paper based on conservative ‘principles’ is going to save either America or the Republican Party.” The Ben Op Christian may or may not believe that the GOP or America can be saved at this point; she is just trying to save a cultural space within which she and her family and neighbors can raise and educate their children as orthodox Christians, and live a faithfully Christian life. Saving the Republican Party or the United States of America are second-order political concerns.
If the Ben Op doesn’t call on Christians to abandon politics altogether, it does call on them to recalibrate their (our) understanding of what politics is and what it can do. Politics, rightly understood, is more than statecraft. Ben Op politics are Christian politics for a post-Christian culture — that is, a culture that no longer shares some key basic Christian values, and in which orthodox Christians will come to be seen as threats to the common good, simply because of the views we hold and the practices we live by out of fidelity to our religion. In other words, it’s an attempt to re-imagine Vaclav Havel’s “antipolitical politics” for 21st century America.