Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Trump & Civic Empathy

The limits of feeling sorry for Trump-traumatized progressives

In his column today, Damon Linker laments “the decline of civic empathy — the capacity to listen respectfully and compassionately to the complaints, fears, anxieties, and anger of fellow citizens with whom we disagree about the highest goods in life.”

It’s the decline in civic empathy that feeds the longing for a new nationalism that will reunify the country — a longing that Trump has encouraged and promised to fulfill. But the decline in civic empathy also makes the fulfillment of that longing impossible. America is politically polarized, as we know all too well. That polarization has now insinuated itself into other facets of life, rending the country’s cultural, moral, and religious fabric. Regions, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, churches, and sometimes even families are deeply divided, with members glaring at each other across yawning chasms of incomprehension and sometimes even mutual disgust.

An interesting point: the marriage therapist John Gottman says that in his line of work, he has found that there is no greater predictor of divorce than mutual contempt within a marriage.  Could that be true in a nation as well?

Linker says that this blog is a particularly representative example of it. Excerpts:

Over the past couple of years, Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative has served as a kind of compendium of and clearinghouse for stories of tradition-minded Christians being bullied by governments, corporations, universities, and other institutions into conforming with the post-Obergefell order of things. More often the stories express anxiety about persecution that has yet to arrive but is just around the corner. Many posts sketch a future in which conservative religious believers will be driven underground and forced to conceal their views in public, and a number of them end with Dreher ominously intoning, “Make no mistake, this is coming.”

If you were to read only his posts that discuss issues of religious persecution, you’d conclude that Dreher is a great defender of freedom of thought and belief, and a scourge of bullies everywhere. But quite a lot of posts on his blog have a different aim and tone. When he isn’t pointing to (or anticipating) the suffering of his fellow social conservatives, he’s often highlighting incidents of lunacy committed by cultural leftists on college campuses, and occasionally within the corporate world as well. Hardly a week goes by without Dreher injecting himself into a conflict at a university, harshly ridiculing tenured “social justice warriors” and precious student “snowflakes” who demand “safe spaces” where they can feel protected from any opinion that threatens, or even diverges faintly from, their own (apparently very fragile) secular, left-liberal, multicultural beliefs.

Well, this is true, especially in the last week, in which we have witnessed an emotional meltdown among the left without precedent. I usually lash out at SJWs and their academic enablers precisely because they are behaving like bullies. They certainly are here. More on this in a bit.  But first:

The contrast between these two categories of posts would be less glaring if Dreher were not also well known for promoting something he calls a “Benedict Option,” in which conservative religious believers seek to protect, preserve, and strengthen their communities in the face of present and future religious persecution. Is this not a “safe space”? The contradiction is so blatant that it’s difficult not to conclude that Dreher’s objection to campus leftists isn’t so much that they seek to insulate and protect themselves from outside influences as that they’re protecting, preserving, and strengthening beliefs that Dreher views with utter contempt.

Nonsense. My (general) objection to campus leftists is that they are driving religious and political conservatives into the closet, and even off campus , and doing so in the name of virtue.

The Benedict Option is not about suppressing dissent on college campuses, organizing mobs to bully professors and others, threatening people with losing their jobs for expressing the “wrong” opinion, destroying schools and other institutions in an attempt to compel them to accept my opinions, ruining the livelihoods of people who have a sincere religious disagreement with me … and on and on. This is what the Social Justice Warrior left is all about. All the Benedict Option seeks to do is to build strong, resilient communities of faith.

If there were no such thing as SJWs, we would still need the Benedict Option to live as Christians, because modernity is by its very nature desacralizing and fragmenting. The fact that we do have SJWs who are not content to leave us alone, who want to push us out of the public square, and who are already showing that they will not be content to leave us alone — well, we need it even more. Linker indicates skepticism that small-o orthodox Christians are going to have pay a price, in “persecution” or something short of that, for their (our) beliefs. He should spend some time talking to law professors and litigators about the kind of religious liberty cases they’re dealing with now, and the clear trends they see coming.

No, we’re not likely to see things like companies saying, “If you believe in Jesus, turn in your badge.” It’s far more likely to be the shunning of those who cannot in good conscience affirm whatever pro-LGBT statement or policy demanded of them by progressives. Gordon College had to fight hard to hold on to its accreditation, not because its academic quality declined, but because the small Evangelical Christian institution refused to abandon its religious principles on the LGBT matter. Christian colleges in California this year very nearly lost a fight for their lives when the state legislature tried to deny their students access to state student funding to punish the colleges for being insufficiently progressive on LGBT issues.

I don’t know that Linker sees it this way, but many on the left construe “religious liberty” as freedom to worship. No serious person engaged in the religious liberty fight from the pro-faith side believes that the government is going to force churches to worship in a certain way. Religious believers, Christian and otherwise, know that to live one’s faith is not simply something on does on holy days. It’s your entire life. True, in a pluralistic, secular democracy, nobody has carte blanche to do what they like and claim religious liberty. But religious liberty is guaranteed in the First Amendment, and was extremely important to the founding of this country. We should try to accommodate religious believers, even if what they believe and do is unpopular, and in fact especially if it is unpopular. Of course this is not an infinitely elastic principle (“Whatabout fundamentalist Mormon polygamists? Whataboutwhataboutwhatabout…?”), and there is simply no way to come up with a strict rule that is generally applicable. The point is we should deliberate from a standpoint of seeking the maximum accommodation possible. Instead, on campuses and elsewhere, we see again and again progressives using anti-discrimination ideology to bulldoze religious and social conservatives out of the way as bigots — at times doing so with the collusion of the media. And this didn’t start yesterday.

Even though I’m a political and religious conservative, I would not stand for treating atheists, gays, progressives, et al., the way they treat conservatives. For example, I’ve said here many times that I am glad the closet is no more. But it is not a moral advance to get rid of the closet for gays, only to frog-march religious conservatives into it.

Damon has been a friend for years, and a close reader of my Benedict Option writing. He is not a conservative, but he has been strongly critical of illiberalism on campus. Unless he’s changed his views since 2009, sees religious particularism as dangerous to civic peace. I couldn’t find his essay in praise of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but Ross Douthat, on his old Atlantic blog, quoted a key graf from it. This is Linker:

Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it’s perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.

As a committed Christian, I say to hell with MTD. It’s a greater threat to the integrity and survival of the Christian faith than atheism. That’s the primary thing the Benedict Option is meant to combat. As part of it, of course I defend the right of Christian communities to have their own private schools, run by their own standards. And I would do the same thing for Muslim schools, and for LGBT schools like Harvey Milk High in Manhattan. There is a big difference between wanting a “safe space” so one can protect oneself from having to hear a different perspective, and wanting an educational institution focused on a particular mission. I’d wager that my semi-homeschooled Christian kids know a lot more about the world and its history than most kids their age, not because they’re smarter, but because we’ve made a point of exposing them to a wide range of human thought, belief, and experience, as part of their Christian education. If we have created a “safe space” for them in classical Christian education, it is in part so they could be educated within a Christian context, but also so they could be educated more broadly and deeply than is standard today.

Anyway, all across the country, orthodox Christian colleges and schools are being told by lawyers that they had better build a high wall of enforced doctrine between themselves and the public square if they want to retain the ability to run their schools in fidelity to their religious convictions. The lawsuits are coming. What one spiteful and litigious couple in Minnesota did to a classical (secular) charter school to compel it to instruct its kindergartners in gender ideology is coming everywhere, and religious schools had better be ready. I have spoken personally to Christian headmasters who are being forced to draw harder, firmer lines than they want to do, but who are being told by lawyers that the survival of their institutions is at stake. So when my friend Damon Linker sniffs at the Benedict Option as merely seeking out a “safe space” in the same way these pathetic campus snowflakes do, I cannot take it seriously. He is apparently ignorant of what is actually going on in this country on that front.

But I digress. More Linker:

I don’t mean to single out Dreher for criticism. He is a friend. I admire and have learned from many of his cultural, moral, and religious insights over the years. And I share many of his concerns about the future of religious freedom in the United States. But I also think it needs to be said that many of the individuals and groups that Dreher incessantly attacks on his blog are seeking to defend people who, historically speaking, have faced centuries of actual persecution at the hands of the state and private citizens. In many cases, that persecution came to an end within living memory, and often just within the last few years, and sometimes it persists down to this day.

Does that not make these people deserving of at least a little civic empathy?

Right, but what counts as “civic empathy”? Where are the boundaries between “hey, I know you’re hurting, and maybe even afraid, and I feel bad for you,” and “what on earth is wrong with you?!” I did not vote for Donald Trump, and none of the worries I had about him taking office have been ameliorated in this past week. True, I’m not as upset about it as most people I know on the left, but I can see why they’re unhappy with the results of the election. I have no problem with that. 

What I strongly object to are the extremes to which some of the anti-Trump people have gone. Had Trump lost the election, would we have seen mobs taking to the streets to smash windows, light fires, and deface public buildings and monuments with profanity and graffiti calling on white people to die (as happened in New Orleans)? Of course not, and if we had, those thugs ought to have received zero public sympathy, and in fact arrested. There are lots of people saying that minorities are being harassed by Trump supporters in the wake of his victory. By now we’ve learned that we can’t credit the simple claim of such on social media as valid, absent other documentation, but insofar as it is true, it is deplorable. People who treat others this way should be punished, strongly.

But this does not just go one way. I’ve seen nothing yet more shocking than this video of the black Chicago mob beating a white man and stealing his car because they identified him as a Trump voter. And yet, yesterday, Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie, who is black, wrote that Trump voters are racists who deserve no empathy. All 60 million of them. I don’t blame Jamelle Bouie for what that black Chicago mob did, but hey, can we have a little civic empathy there? Can we?

What I have spent the last week doing is documenting left-wing freakouts, almost all of them on campus, not simply for the sake of mockery, but to reveal how far gone into decadence and delusion many campuses are under the leadership of their present administrators and faculty. This is not just “get a load of those loony leftists” trollery; there is something deeply and seriously wrong at these places, and it speaks to something profoundly disordered in our elites.

Bear with me here, because this is long, but it’s a perfect example of what I’ve been talking about. A reader at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania forwarded it to me yesterday, saying it was sent out by the Dean of Students:

Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,

Many of you have reached out to me in the past week to share your support, to ask what is being done for our students during this difficult time, and to inquire about how you can help. I thought I might provide you a brief update from my perspective on 1) what is the current student climate in the wake of the election; 2) What is being offered to students as a means for supporting them and assisting them in making meaning of things; and 3) how can you continue to help?

The cliff notes version:
-The climate is unsettled, students are struggling, but they are showing courage and are slowly turning toward the future
-Many events have taken place in the past week, and the next big one will take place on the College Green at 2pm on Friday – A community gathering to affirm our Muhlenberg values – Please join us!
-Please continue to offer students opportunities to reflect and make meaning, to be heard and to be challenged to look at things from multiple perspectives and if you witness or hear about acts of intolerance, please report them immediately
-We are in this together and our commitment to creating a culture of respect in which our students can learn and develop is paramount

The full story…

1) My personal (one person) read on the student climate at the moment, is that it is tenuous, brave, and unsettled…a lot like the broader country I would say. I have sat with students at both ends and all across the middle of the political spectrum who have felt marginalized, silenced, afraid, and troubled…some of them feeling those things potentially for the first time in their life and wrestling with the privilege that comes with that, some learning about the work and cost of allyship in a different way than they have thought of it before, and for some, a difficult reinforcement of reality and the many ways they have been made to feel lesser and silenced long before this election. All of that said, I am starting to witness a shift…in some cases from a place of grief and almost despair toward a place of hope and a deeper level of conviction and commitment to social justice than ever before. The most promising of all at the moment and one of the overriding descriptors I can name is “ENGAGED” – Students have been awakened in a real and deep way and for the most part they are reading, watching, sharing their voices and this is something we have a huge opportunity to harness and help guide as educators. Finally, at this point, we have not had any significant bias issues reported in our community since the election unlike some other institutions across the country and in our own backyard. However, I would be remiss if I did not share the sobering fact that there have been some second-hand accounts relayed to many of us of offensive and harmful things that have been said among students in hallways, classrooms and in residence halls. Students are struggling, but they are working at it. And for that I am thankful.

Though I know you all know it better than almost anyone, here is a brief bit of context for their emotional responses. These are some of the things I have been reminding myself of in the recent days. These recent events and actions present a complex set of emotions for me to deal with and I am far from 18-22 years old. For most, this is also their first election, they have known a president from the Democratic Party since they were 10-12 years old, and 9/11 happened when they were on average 3-5 years old. There have not been times of major activism in their lifetime and they are learning to navigate all of this complexity and unrest for the first time under less direct guidance from their parents (we hope). They are not fragile, but they do have much to learn about resilience. And we should not coddle, but we must listen, comfort, and help them reflect.

2)What have we done so far on campus and what will we be doing moving forward?

-An email was sent to all students by both the President and the Dean of Students and resources for support and dialog across campus were shared
-Last Wednesday, about 80 people gathered for a post-election conversation led by faculty from Political Science
-Many, many of you made room in your classes for reflection, support, and dialog last week – THANK YOU!
-Groups gathered in spaces where they felt most comfortable and welcome from Hillel to the Multicultural Center, to clubs and organizations to your offices to receive support
-Several faculty and staff met with a student who self-organized walking partners to meet a potential need and from that conversation she is moving forward with her plan while we work with her and others to look at institutional measures to assist
-We have scheduled our annual Campus Safety walk with student reps and Plant Ops to walk around on campus to determine places that need more lighting, additional blue lights, etc. to further enhance safety
-SGA invited students and student groups to their meeting to dialog post-election
-MTA and the Acafellas, with the help of a couple faculty members, hosted “Songs for Solidarity” where over 75 people came out to support one another and sing songs of hope.
-The Hate and Bias resource team (which you will hear much more about in the coming weeks) has been reconstituted, is meeting regularly and supports people in our community who experience acts of harassment and discrimination
And much more…

What is next?

-This week, I am inviting about 12-15 student thought leaders from all different backgrounds and experiences to come together to break bread and talk about how they want to enact our campus values of diversity, human dignity and respect and how they want to empower their peers broadly to bring those to life in our community. They have asked for this type of conversation, and my hope is that it will lead to future partnerships and collaborations.

-Many faculty and staff continue to offer 1-1 and small group conversations across campus

-On Friday, we ask that you join the Campus Committee on College Life in solidarity – please see the description below:

Community Gathering:
Friday, November 18, 2:00 pm, Parents Plaza
The past few weeks have highlighted both the worst and the best of our country’s humanity and no matter your beliefs or political views, it has been a time of high tension, emotional exhaustion, and deep uncertainty for many. This Friday, the College Committee on Campus Life invites you to please come, join your peers, colleagues and community members in an important non-partisan event. We will observe a few moments of silence on the College Green where collectively we might reflect on our humanity as a community, show our visual support for Muhlenberg values of human dignity, respect, and civility and recognize the power of our collective solidarity. After those reflective moments, there will be a few minutes of song. Then there will be a time for you to have refreshments with one another, add your name to a large Muhlenberg banner that demonstrates our community’s commitment to values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect and for you to share a personal commitment to upholding these values. Please don’t miss this important moment in our community to show your support! More info: Jeffrey Peterson, Chair of CCCL: jpeterson@muhlenberg.edu

And there will be much more offered in the weeks and months to come, I am sure!

What can you do?

It is truly difficult to know exactly how to be helpful in times like this, but I can share some of the things students have shared with me:

1) They crave opportunities to reflect and make meaning across generations and with adults who have a bit longer history on this crazy world we live in – so join them, be present, share your perspectives, and listen to theirs.

2) Balance the challenge and support you provide for their ideas and concerns…do what you always do – push them to think critically, to consider another angle, to defend their arguments, but require them to to do so with humility and civility. Below is the link to some resources Kathy Harring provided last week that some faculty found very helpful.


3) If you hear about or witness an act of bias in our community, report it. https://www.muhlenberg.edu/hatebiaspolicy/policy.html For the overall health of our community, we need to maintain a strong understanding of any acts of intolerance so that we can support victims, provide resources, respond appropriately, and understand the most pressing issues of harassment and discrimination on our campus that need to be addressed. To report these incidents, please utilize the link below and/or call my office or if you prefer. If a student victim(s) is not comfortable with reporting something that happened to them, please connect the individual to a confidential resource such as the Counseling Center or Rev. Callista Isabel or Rabbi Melissa Simon.

Finally, I want to say thank you for being such a supportive force for our students. For some of you, it is in times like these on predominantly white campuses that faculty and staff of marginalized backgrounds are even further shouldered with the burden of being a primary support resource for underrepresented students. I want to recognize that. Know that you are not alone in that burden and that my office, the Office of Multicultural Life, Religious Life and others are here to support you and serve as a resource alongside you in your work. Please don’t hesitate to call on us!

If there has been one over-riding message I have left all of the student groups with whom I have had the privilege of sitting with in the past week, it is this…Muhlenberg College affirmed the value of your human dignity on this campus long before this election season because your inherent value is not about politics. As such, this College will continue to stand behind you and all of your many identities moving forward. That did not change last Tuesday and it is an unwavering commitment that we will continue to make good on and improve upon in the days to come.

Please reach out if you have any questions.

Take care,
Allison Gulati

This is an epistle from deep, deep inside the campus bubble. Imagine being a Trump voter on this campus. The Dean of Students, presumably speaking for the administration, has identified you as a traumatizer of minority students. You would probably want to keep your head down and your mouth shut. The assumption of this letter is that the Trump election was a catastrophe that stands to set off pogroms against “underrepresented students” (the euphemisms progressives come up with!), and that compels white students to face their “privilege” and assume the responsibility of “allyship”. For what? It was a democratic presidential election! Sure, people on campus are upset, and there’s nothing wrong with convening public groups to talk about it. But this kind of progressivist Romper Room infantilizing of college students is absurd and destructive. If the faculty, staff, and student body of Muhlenberg College cannot imagine why half the voters in this country — including 29 percent of Latino voters eight percent of black voters — chose Trump, other than bigotry, then it is they who have the problem, not the country.

Empathy is fine. Empathy is good. When your child falls down and scrapes his knee, you naturally want to comfort him. But if you overplay it, and exacerbate his sense of trauma — “Omigosh, are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Omigosh, this is horrible! Oh, sweetie!” — you actually make it worse. That’s what’s going on here, seems to me, and at other colleges. They are taking a democratic presidential election and treating it like a Reichstag fire. Many campuses are already places where non-progressives feel marginalized and silenced. And this is not what college campuses are supposed to be. 

Worse — and this is why my well of civic empathy runs dry for these people — is that they politicize and weaponize empathy for identified victim classes as a way of gaining power over opponents. This has been going on for quite some time, and has been very effective. I’ve mentioned in this space before how shocked I was back in 1994 to have been having lunch at a DC restaurant with a friend and two of her female acquaintances, all three of them involved in Democratic politics. One of them brought up abortion, and said, hey, you’re a Catholic, what do you think about abortion? I told them I’m pro-life, but didn’t want to discuss it at lunch. That was just about the last word I got in. All three women dogpiled me rhetorically, telling me that I had no right to an opinion on it because I was a man, a religious bigot, et cetera. This is someone all three had just spent a pleasant morning with, walking around DC.

After a few minutes, one of the women at the table folded her arms and looked frightened. Someone asked her what was wrong. She said, “I don’t feel safe with him at the table.”

I stood up, threw down money to pay my bill, and walked out of the restaurant. And that was the end of me and them. I could not believe how pathetic that conversation was, and how childish and manipulative was that young woman who feigned fright as a way to marginalize me. Little did I know that she was ahead of her time. And you know, she probably wasn’t feigning anything. I don’t know where she went to college, but I would not be surprised if she graduated from one of the liberal arts schools that taught her to be afraid of conservatives.

Mind you, that’s a personal anecdote, but when I read things like the Dean of Students letter at Muhlenberg detailing the progressive nannyish stance the school is taking towards the Trump election, and the way it’s surely going to drive dissenters on campus further into the closet, and when I reflect on how this sort of thing has been happening on many campuses across America this week — well, it infuriates me. I say that as someone who did not vote for Trump, and who did not vote for Trump in part because I find him a spiteful man. But I’ve gotta say, the reaction this past week from many of his progressive opponents has brought into sharp relief the reason why so many people who don’t really like Trump voted for him anyway.

For example, you can say many bad things about Donald Trump that are true, but that he’s “anti-gay”? Ridiculous. But that hasn’t stopped progressives from freaking themselves out about how he’s surely an anti-gay bigot. I think the victimhood pathology of the left actually enjoys the idea that Donald Trump is going to hurt them, even if the evidence is lacking. They love the drama. In this, they are no different than the right-wing nuts who responded to Obama’s election by stockpiling guns, or the religious extremists who work themselves into a tizzy about the End Times, in response to geopolitical events. I have been that person before, in response to a very real event in which freaking out was a rational response — 9/11, which I experienced as a New York City resident — and I very much regret the way I let my (understandable) emotions overtake my better judgment in the wake of it.

So: does the “civic empathy” Damon Linker finds so lacking in my response to Trump require me to join the campus pity party of hysterics and their enablers, or to look with anything but contempt upon the violent bigots causing violence and mayhem in some cities to protest the results of a democratic election? Sorry, not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen mostly because throwing a temper tantrum around victimhood, and using it to silence dissent and to increase power within institutions, has been the left’s modus operandi for some time. We’ve seen it on campuses, we’ve seen it in the media and in workplaces, and I have no sympathy for it.


Now take the animosity between Dreher and his opponents and imagine it playing itself out hundreds and thousands of times across the country every day, in personal and online interactions. That’s America today, with sub-political attachments and antagonisms increasingly overriding the national solidarity that makes civic empathy possible. Without a shared sense that we hold a certain history or body of ideals in common, it becomes impossible to take the cares and concerns, anxieties and fears of our fellow citizens seriously. In such circumstances, the “nation” amounts to nothing more than the sum total of tribes jostling for position, competing for power, in an endless series of zero-sum games. It’s politics conducted as a civil war by other means.

Well, yeah, but that’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s point, as Linker surely knows. Not only do we have less and less to bind us — something that progressivism, with its identity-politics obsession, bears the greatest responsibility for — but we have become a civic culture ruled by emotivism: the idea that if we feel it, it must be true. This is not something that is limited to those on the political and cultural left. I’ve had almost as many pointless exchanges with people on the Right, years before Trump was ever a thing, about this or that right-wing shibboleth. Their minds were just as closed to the possibility that they might be wrong as any campus faculty member — yet they were completely convinced that they had perfectly open minds. This is not a left-wing or right-wing problem; this is an American problem. 

It’s the kind of problem that education is supposed to address and improve. Instead, in the past week, we have seen many campuses bunkering down into fortresses of ideological purity and hive-mindery. It is a scandal, it is embarrassing, and it is a threat to the possibility of civic life. It is good and necessary to have empathy for your fellow citizens who are having a hard time living with the results of the election. But empathy has limits. Had Hillary Clinton won, today many, many religious conservatives would be deep into despair over what that result meant for the safety and integrity of our institutions, given Mrs. Clinton’s views on the matter. Do you think Muhlenberg College, or any other college in America, would have gone into Defcon 5? No, and neither should they have done. I think, though, that there would have been a complete lack of “civic empathy” on the left for what us bigotty-bigotty-bigots on the Christian Right would have been facing? Please.



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