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Unfortunately, Character Is Destiny

Trump and 'wondering how and when the crash will come'
Unfortunately, Character Is Destiny

A friend e-mails tonight:

Nearly everything seems messy and confusing—and I am a bit disillusioned and frustrated by the news right now.

Because of the venom and the anger, I’ve been tempted to just tune out. Or give up. It makes me want to go work as a barista, maybe, or volunteer full-time somewhere. If I could make enough money to support our family doing those things, I’d probably try.

Do you ever feel this way? And if so, how do you get through it? Thing is, everything’s so vitriolic right now, I don’t feel like I have any words left in response.

I understand this. There is this graf from a piece by Branko Milanovic. He uses “liberalism” here to describe the Western order:

I am writing this in Vienna, in Prater, overlooking a giant Ferris Wheel which inevitably makes one think of Harry Lime. One can see liberalism as having set the Ferris Wheel in motion, with each car moving at first slowly and then faster and faster. The ride brought immense joy at first, but eventually, it seems, somebody turned on the switch to super-fast, locked the control room, and most of us are now in these cars that no one controls and no one can stop, running at break-neck speed, and wondering how and when the crash will come.

This feels right to me. There seems to be a deeper logic playing out here beneath the surface chaos. It’s the kind of thing that perhaps we can intuit, but can’t quite name in this moment, though it will become clearer to future historians, as did the fatal logic leading up to events in the summer of 1914. Which worked out so well for Western civilization.

This morning, my 13-year-old son was asking me about what’s going on with the new president. He hears us talking about it all the time, and expressing concerns about the country that he’s never heard (he was too young to remember his parents talking about the 2008 crash and its fallout). He said to me that he believed that Trump was bound to get himself impeached. I asked him why, and he said that Trump seems reckless, like he wouldn’t obey laws that he didn’t want to obey. You’re right, I said. I don’t think he will. Even if he does, that recklessness is going to cause so many problems for him. We’re seeing it right now, I said, with the immigration mess.

We talked about character. I told him about how Donald Trump came from Queens, and has always had a lot of resentment against people he believed didn’t respect him (McKay Coppins published a good piece about this today). It’s not that Trump is wrong about how those people in society don’t respect him — he’s right about that — but it’s that he gives them so much power over him. And this is going to be his undoing. Character is destiny.

I told my son about Richard Nixon and Watergate, which played out when I was a small boy. As I heard myself explaining Watergate, I recalled what it felt like back then to hear the evening news, and the sense my parents had that our country was suddenly in a very bad place. I remember the summer of 1973, and how strange it was that the morning game shows were pre-empted by live coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. I didn’t know much more than that — I was only six — but the sense of fundamental disorder was palpable. I had no way of understanding what the president was accused of, but I knew that the president was supposed to be good, and that that was in question now.

At the end of our discussion, I told my son that Richard Nixon was a brilliant, gifted man who was undone by his own insecurity, anger, and paranoia. Trump has none of Nixon’s brilliance, and ten times his insecurity, anger, and paranoia, I said. What I didn’t say is that Trump is now president of a country whose institutions and whose mores will not hold him accountable like they held Nixon accountable.

Character is destiny. And the character of a nation is its destiny too. That’s an unsettling thought right about now, isn’t it? If the Greeks were right, we are all cascading towards nemesis, in the sense Branko Milanovic identifies.

One thing we can do is to try to understand what’s happening, and how to endure it without losing ourselves. In this regard, the newspapers and websites may well be of less practical use than novels, poetry, and the classics. Or other serious works; for example, I’ve started reading René Girard. One may feel powerless to arrest these great and terrible events unfolding like a prophecy, but perhaps one can find a way not to be crushed by the millstone of big history.

A Christian priest and reader who is a Girardian e-mails:

Consider the following, from an interview in First Things a few years ago:

CH: What about this quotation: “Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened”? 

RG: It means that the end times will be very long and monotonous — so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spirituality, even for the best of us, will be very great. This is a harsh lesson but one ultimately of hope rather than despair.

Keep reading. Girard explains and even foretells so much of what we are seeing. It’s accelerating. The danger for Christians is cynicism, keeping it tuned to Fox News, reciprocal violence, lovelessness, spiritual mediocrity (cf. the mainlines).

The more important conflict we face now is the one within ourselves, our families, and our communities, to resist the spirit of the age. To build arks within which to ride out the storm. I have more on this coming soon.



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