The MAGA Khan & The Abyss
The one narrative that our current ruling classes find absolutely repulsive and unacceptable is that there is any sort of broad social and cultural decline.
That would directly contradict their deepest philosophical convictions.
— Carlo Lancellotti (@_CLancellotti) August 6, 2019
Namely: the direction of history towards greater progress and freedom made possible by science and technology, the primacy of the economic dimension, the superstructural nature of religion, “secular Pelagianism,” human perfectibility by social manipulation etc.
— Carlo Lancellotti (@_CLancellotti) August 6, 2019
In fact, I suspect that is what truly drives people crazy about Trump: he is a living refutation of whig secular Pelagianism. He is an Augustinian, late-empire kind of character.
— Carlo Lancellotti (@_CLancellotti) August 6, 2019
There’s a lot of truth in these observations. To be honest, I believe this is one thing that truly drives many conservative Christians crazy about The Benedict Option: that my cultural diagnosis is a living refutation of the whiggish Christianity with which most of us Americans were raised. For very many Christians, the deepest conviction about America is that we are God’s exceptional nation, and that we can only grow in His favor. To people who weren’t raised within this, it sounds absurd. Look at the Old Testament: Israel really was God’s chosen people, but Israel fell away all the time. Yet God did not abrogate His covenant with them. We don’t have a covenant with God as the ancient Hebrews did, but it is surely true that if we, as a nation, were to repent, God would be there waiting for us.
What many of us American Christians can’t bring ourselves to imagine is that we can collectively abandon God. But we have that freedom — and on current trends, we are exercising it. God allowed His people Israel to be carried into bondage in Babylon — but even there, He did not abandon them. Why should we be so confident that He would not allow us to turn our Shining City On A Hill into Babylon through our infidelity?
A friend of mine tells a funny story about the day after Election Day, 1992. She attended an Evangelical high school in a deeply conservative part of the country. They woke up that Wednesday to discover that George H.W. Bush had lost, and that Bill Clinton was going to be the president. She said that everybody at school that day was walking around like a zombie. Nobody could really believe that God would allow that to happen. When she tells that story, my friend laughs at the apocalypticism within her social circles — apocalypticism over a moderate Democrat defeating a moderate Republican. But I think there’s something important there. Within that community, the belief that God was going to act to restore America, and that the Republican Party was His instrument, was taken as common knowledge. Today, in that very same community, they fervently believe this about Donald Trump.
So, yes, Prof. Lancellotti is correct: the American ruling classes cannot accept the idea of decline — but neither can the people they rule! Or if we do accept decline, we think of it as a temporary thing, something that can be reversed by electing the correct president. Obama the Lightworker couldn’t do it. Lord knows that the MAGA Khan can’t do it. At this point, if it can be done at all, it would require a new Great Awakening, one whose effects would need to be profound, not superficial.
Here’s what I mean: I recently spoke to a physician who told me that in our country, we have a serious problem discerning the difference between “health” and “well being.” As he put it, “health” is the condition in which a person is thriving; “well being” is the person’s subjective judgment about his or her thriving. One can have a strong sense of well being, but be quite sick, and self-deceived. The doctor told me that America is actually pretty sick in some profound ways, but in some cases we are not permitted to say so, or at least many Americans simply do not want to recognize the symptoms. They prefer to live in denial. Well being is a powerful narcotic.
In any case, this country is not remotely prepared for a Great Awakening. To be woke, in the authentic Christian sense, would require deep repentance from so much in modern life. We don’t want to do it. Hey, I don’t want to do it. But it has to be done, if we are going to live. The Benedict Option is about waking up, reading the signs of the times, and building into one’s own life, and into the life of one’s family and community, the kind of resilience that comes with strong spiritual discipline — a resilience that can build communities capable of being faithful through this long darkness to come, and which we’ve already entered. I’ve described this as building a flotilla of small arks. We have to hope that eventually the flood waters will recede, and the arks will be capable of reseeding the earth.
In 1969, Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, saw it all coming. Here’s an excerpt from a radio address he gave then, about the trials ahead, trials that would break the power of the Church, and her wealth, and cause masses to fall away:
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
This, I would say, is not a prophecy for the Catholic Church alone.
In The Benedict Option, I caution readers that Donald Trump is not a solution. At best, I wrote, he will buy Christians time to prepare for a difficult future, one of loss, and probably even some form of persecution. I can understand why some Christians voted for him in 2016 — I did not, but I get it — and I can understand why some will vote for him in 2020. I don’t rule that out myself, though voting for Trump in 2020 would be the greatest act of political despair I’ve ever done, surpassing even the time I had to vote for the crook Edwin W. Edwards to prevent David Duke from taking office as Louisiana governor. There won’t be any good choices for people like me in 2020, only two really bad ones. The choice is simply between which one of the two will slow the velocity of our decline. I see no forces, and no leaders, capable of arresting it, because I see no serious will among the people to arrest it, or even to see that we are broadly in decline. We are a people of Well Being. Philip Rieff had our number.
Anyway, I commend to you Ross Douthat’s very powerful column today, about Donald Trump and the shootings over the weekend. It’s not the usual, useless crap from the pundit class. There’s something profound there. Douthat diagnoses precisely why Donald Trump is a symptom of our cultural decline. And look, if you hate Donald Trump, and consider yourself to be his implacable enemy, I urge you to read Douthat’s column and consider the ways that deep down, you are a collaborator with the culture that produced him. Here’s the core of it:
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
“Anti-culture” is a term one associates with Philip Rieff, the sociologist and cultural critic. He said that we live in an anti-culture because our “culture” cannot do what a culture is supposed to do. In fact, it does precisely the opposite: it disintegrates, and makes healthy life impossible. The New York Times, Douthat’s own newspaper, is one of the chief disseminators of the anti-culture. Want to talk about the “dissolution of normal human bonds”? The Times last weekend published one of its depressingly frequent paeans to principles and lifestyles that destroy our culture: a puff piece about polyamory. You cannot stand there and denounce Donald Trump as decadent, but embrace this garbage. Not with any credibility. If people come to believe they have to choose between elites who promote this trash and Trump, it’s hard to blame them for going for the Orange Man who at least doesn’t hate them.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
This is something that is true of the Left as much as the Right. In fact, both sides see it clearly in each other. They don’t realize that they are looking at mirror images of each other. This is not because they are left-wing, or right-wing; it’s because they are — we are — Americans of a decadent, late-Imperial period.
Finally, Douthat fires a proton torpedo right into the reactor core of contemporary cultural conservatism:
Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
Like Prof. Lancellotti says, we are in a late-Imperial age. As MacIntyre said too. So, listen: vote for the MAGA Khan if you like, but don’t waste your time believing, as in Kavafy’s brilliant poem that he is a kind of solution. Instead, prepare.