What is behind Trumpism?

Trumpeters.jpgSince I have resolved to never vote for Donald Trump, I am now trying to understand why the Trumpeters toot his horn. Perhaps the first mistake here is look for a “why” when none may exist, as conservative writer George Will reminds me: “It is axiomatic that you cannot reason a person out of a position that the person has not been reasoned into. The adhesive that binds Trumpkins to their messiah can be dissolved by neither facts nor eloquence.” Even so, I have searched for plausible reasons that explain the inexplicable mob behind Trump.

New York Times: Peter Wehner, “What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?

AMONG the most inexplicable developments in this bizarre political year is that Donald Trump is the candidate of choice of many evangelical Christians.

Mr. Trump won a plurality of evangelical votes in each of the last three Republican contests, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. He won the glowing endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, who has called him “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” Last week, Pat Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, told Mr. Trump during an interview, “You inspire us all.”

If this embrace strikes you as discordant, it should. This visionary and inspiring man humiliated his first wife by conducting a very public affair, chronically bullies and demeans people, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness. His name is emblazoned on a casino that features a strip club; he has discussed anal sex on the air with Howard Stern and, after complimenting his daughter Ivanka’s figure, pointed out that if she “weren’t my daughter, perhaps I would be dating her.” He once supported partial-birth abortion and to this day praises Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. He is a narcissist appealing to people whose faith declares that pride goes before a fall.

Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader: integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good.

When Bill Clinton was president, evangelicals ranked moral probity high on their list of leadership qualities. Supporters of Mr. Trump, a moral degenerate, justify their support by saying we’re electing a president rather than a pastor. Why a significant number of evangelicals are rallying round a man who exposes them as hypocrites is difficult to fathom.

Part of the explanation is that many evangelicals feel increasingly powerless, beaten down, aggrieved and under attack. A sense of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury,” is leading them to look for scapegoats to explain their growing impotence. People filled with anger and grievances are easily exploited. As the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote, “We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement and where everyone has a grievance.”

Enter Donald Trump, alpha male.

Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters don’t care about his agenda; they are utterly captivated by his persona. They view him as the strongest, most dominant, most assertive political figure they have ever seen. In an odd bow to Nietzschean ethics, they respect and applaud his Will to Power. And so the man who openly admires tyrants like Vladimir V. Putin and praised the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square because it showed “strength” has become the repository of their hopes.

Set aside the fact that Mr. Trump is a compulsive and unrepentant liar. Set aside, too, that he has demonstrated no ability for statecraft or the actual administration of government and has demonstrated much incompetence at business to boot.

Bracket for now the fact that Mr. Trump has been more erratic, unprincipled and proudly ignorant when it comes to public policy than perhaps any major presidential candidate in American history.

What stuns me is how my fellow evangelicals can rally behind a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith. They overlook, rationalize and even delight in Mr. Trump’s obsessive name-calling and Twitter attacks, his threats and acts of intimidation, his vindictiveness and casual cruelty (including mocking the disabled and P.O.W.s), all of which masquerade as strength and toughness. For some evangelicals, Christianity is no longer shaping their politics; with Mr. Trump in view, their faith lies subordinate.

Yet it goes beyond that. Trumpism is not a political philosophy; it is a purposeful effort, led by a demagogue, to incite ugly passions, stoke resentments and divisions, and create fear of those who are not like “us” — Mexicans, Muslims and Syrian refugees. But it will not end there. There will always be fresh targets.

Mr. Trump’s approach to life is not new. In “The Republic,” Plato writes of Thrasymachus debating Socrates over the meaning of justice. Thrasymachus, a cynical Sophist, insists that justice has no intrinsic meaning but is merely a pretty word for what is in the interest of the stronger party. Life is a competition to get more money and more power; that is what defines success. “Injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice,” he argues.

Almost four centuries later, a carpenter from Nazareth offered a very different philosophy. When you see a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, Jesus taught, you should not pass him by. “Truly I say to you,” he said in Matthew, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

At its core, Christianity teaches that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season in life, has inherent dignity and worth. “Follow justice and justice alone,” Deuteronomy says, “so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” The attitude of Thrasymachus is foreign to biblical Christianity. So is Trumpism. In embracing it, evangelical Christians are doing incalculable damage to their witness.

New York Times: Ross Douthat, “From Obama to Trump.”

The Trump uprising is first and foremost a Republican and conservative problem: There would be no Trumpism if George W. Bush’s presidency hadn’t cratered, no Trumpism if the party hadn’t alternated between stoking and ignoring working-class grievances, no Trump as front-runner if the party leadership and his rivals had committed fully to stopping him before now.

But Trumpism is also a creature of the late Obama era, irrupting after eight years when a charismatic liberal president has dominated the cultural landscape and set the agenda for national debates. President Obama didn’t give us Trump in any kind of Machiavellian or deliberate fashion. But it isn’t an accident that this is the way the Obama era ends — with a reality TV demagogue leading a populist, nationalist revolt.

First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar. The quasi-religious imagery and rhetoric, the Great Man iconography and pillared sets, the Oprah endorsement and Will.i.am music video and the Hollywood stars pledging allegiance — it was presidential politics as one part Aaron Sorkin-scripted liturgy, one part prestige movie’s Oscar campaign.

And it worked. But because it worked, now we have the nearly-inevitable next step: presidential politics as a season of “Survivor” or, well, “The Apprentice,” with the same celebrity factor as Obama’s ’08 run, but with his campaign’s high-middlebrow pretensions stripped away. If Obama proved that you can run a presidential campaign as an aspirational cult of personality, in which a Sarah Silverman endorsement counts for as much as a governor or congressman’s support, Trump is proving that you don’t need Silverman to shout “the Aristocrats!” and have people eat it up.

He’s also proving, in his bullying, overpromising style, that voters are increasingly habituated to the idea of an ever more imperial presidency — which is also a trend that Obama’s choices have accelerated. Having once campaigned against his predecessor’s power grabs, the current president has expanded executive authority along almost every dimension: launching wars without congressional approval, claiming the power to assassinate American citizens, and using every available end-around to make domestic policy without any support from Congress.

In the process, he’s cut the legs from under principled liberal critiques of executive power, and weakened the American left’s role as a bulwark against Caesarism. Which makes it altogether fitting — if deeply unfortunate — that his reward is the rise of a right-wing Caesarist whose authoritarian style and outrageous promises makes George W. Bush look like Cato the Younger.

And that Caesarist, crucially, is rallying a constituency that once swung between the parties, but that the Obama White House has spent the last eight years slowly writing off. Trump’s strongest supporters aren’t archconservatives; they’re white working-class voters, especially in the Rust Belt and coal country, who traditionally leaned Democratic and still favor a strong welfare state.

These voters had been drifting away from the Democratic Party since the 1970s, but Obama has made moves that effectively slam the door on them: His energy policies, his immigration gambits, his gun control push, his shift to offense on same-sex marriage and abortion. It was possible to be a culturally conservative skeptic of mass immigration in the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton. Not so anymore.

Of course this process has been a two-way street, as bigotry inclined some of these voters against Obama from the start, or encouraged them to think the worst of him eventually. And political coalitions shift all the time: There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Obama White House’s decision that a more ethnically diverse and thoroughgoingly liberal coalition held more promise than continued efforts to keep Reagan Democrats in the fold. (Though Democrats in Congress and statehouses might be forgiven for doubting the decision.)

But liberalism still needs to reckon with the consequences. As in Europe, when the left gives up on nationalism and lets part of its old working class base float away, the result is a hard-pressed constituency unmoored from either party, and nursing well-grounded feelings of betrayal.

Hence Marine Le Pen and the nationalist parties of Europe. And hence, now, Donald Trump.

He is the Republican Party’s monster, yes. But what he represents is also part of the Obama legacy — a nemesis for liberal follies as well as conservative corruptions, and a threat to both traditions for many years to come.

New York Times: Ross Douthat,The Elements of Trumpism.”

What Trump is doing, then, is showing us something different, something that less fortunate countries know all too well: how authoritarianism works, how it seduces, and ultimately how it wins.

But — God willing — he’s doing it in a way that’s sufficiently chaotic, ridiculous and ultimately unpopular that he will pass from the scene without actually taking power, leaving us to absorb the lessons of his rise.

That rise has four building blocks. First, his strongest supporters have entirely legitimate grievances. The core of that support is a white working class that the Democratic Party has half-abandoned and the Republican Party has poorly served — a cohort facing social breakdown and economic stagnation, and stuck with a liberal party offering condescension and open borders and a conservative party offering foreign quagmires and capital gains tax cuts. Trump’s support is broader than just these voters, but they’re the reason he’s a phenomenon, a force.

Second, you have the opportunists — the politicians and media figures who have seen some advantage from elevating Trump. The first wave of these boosters, including Ted Cruz and various talk radio hosts, clearly imagined that Trump would flare and die, and by being in his corner early they could win his voters later, or gain his fans as listeners. But the next wave, upon us now, thinks that Trump is here to stay, and their hope is to join his inner circle (if they’re politicians), shape his policy proposals (if they’re idea peddlers), or be the voice of the Trump era (if they’re Sean Hannity).

There is no real ideological consistency to this group: Trump’s expanding circle of apologists includes Sarah Palin and Steve Forbes, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie; he has anti-immigration populists and Wall Street supply-siders, True Conservatives and self-conscious moderates, evangelical preachers and avowed white nationalists. The only common threads are cynicism, ambition and a sense of Trump as a ticket to influence they couldn’t get any other way.

Then third, you have the institutionalists — less cynical, not at all enamored of Trump, but unwilling to do all that much to stop him. These are people who mostly just want Republican politics to go back to normal, who fear risk and breakage and schism too much to go all in against him.

The institutionalists include the party apparatchiks who imagine they can manage and constrain Trump if he gets the nomination. They include the donors who’ve been reluctant to fund the kind of scorched-earth assault that the Democrats surely have waiting. They include the rivals who denounce Trump as a con artist but promise to vote for him in the fall. They include Republicans who keep telling themselves stories about how Trump will appoint conservative justices or Trump is expanding the party to pretend that Trump versus Hillary would be a normal sort of vote. And they even include the occasional liberal convinced that Trump-the-dealmaker is someone the Democrats can eventually do business with.

Then, finally, you have the inevitabilists — not Trump supporters, but Trump enablers, who encourage the institutionalists in their paralysis by acting and talking as if the support of 35 percent of the primary electorate means Trump Cannot Be Stopped.

Some inevitabilists are intoxicated with celebrity and star power. Cable news is riddled with such voices, who daily manifest Orwell’s dictum, “Power worship blurs political judgment,” so that, “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

Others, especially in the intelligentsia, have a kind of highbrow nihilism about our politics, a sense that American democracy’s decadence — or the Republican Party’s decadence, in particular — is so advanced that a cleansing Trumpian fire might be just the thing we need.

I have a little bit of the last vice, which is why I spent a long time being anti-anti-Trump: not rooting for him to win, but appreciating his truth-telling on certain issues, his capacity to upset the stagnant status quo.

Which is the way it so often works with authoritarians. They promise a purgation that many people at some level already desire, and only too late do you realize that the purge will extend too far, and burn away too much.

Fortunately Trump’s fire should still be contained, by the wider electorate if not by his hapless party. Fortunately he’s still more a comic-opera demagogue than a clear and present danger. Fortunately this is just history giving us a lesson in what could happen, how the republic could slide into a strongman’s hands.

Fortunately.

New York Times: Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump’s Christian Soldiers.”

First, the good news for despairing anti-Trump believers: Despite those polls showing him doing well with evangelicals and Catholics, Trump is not the first choice of most active churchgoers. Indeed, active religiosity is (relatively speaking) one of the bulwarks against Trumpism, and his coalition is strongest among the most secular Republicans, not the most religious.

That said, it’s not as if Trump is being shut out among the devout. When The Wall Street Journal recently profiled the Trump coalition, they found that despite his supporters’ secular tilt, 38 percent still described themselves as weekly churchgoers.

What Trump is doing, then, isn’t so much co-opting conservative Christianity as exploiting its weaknesses and divisions. As with the wider conservative coalition, Trump is heightening conservative religion’s internal contradictions and fracturing it along pre-existing fault lines.

The first fault line is the one suggested by the data on churchgoing: Trump is losing the most active believers, but he’s winning in what I’ve previously termed the “Christian penumbra” — the areas of American society (parts of the South very much included) where active religiosity has weakened, but a Christian-ish residue remains.

The inhabitants of this penumbra still identify with Christianity, but they lack the communities, habits and support structures that make the religious path (somewhat) easier to walk. As a result, this Christian-ish landscape seems to produce more social dysfunction, more professional disappointment and more personal disarray than either a thoroughgoing secularism or a fully practiced faith — which makes it ripe territory for Trump’s populist appeal. And his occasional nods to religious faith — like, say, his promise to make store clerks say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” — are well tailored for voters for whom Christian identity is still a talisman even when an active faith is all but gone.

Then among Americans who do still have an active faith, Trump has exploited the widening gap between what many conservative Christians assumed about the relationship between their country and their faith, and what the last 10 years or more of social and political change have revealed about the nation’s drift. Here’s how Ben Domenech recently described this psychology of disillusionment:

“Evangelicals have for decades believed that the country was more conservative than not, more Christian than not. The bipartisanship on religious liberty and the civic faith of the country was conducive to that. Now they’ve woken up to a reality in the Obama years that this was a polite fiction. They worry that coaches getting fired over praying at schools, fire chiefs getting fired for citing Scripture, bakers getting bankrupted over their refusal to bake a cake — their entire perspective on Christian faith as a key element of what made America great has been swept away.”

Faced with these shifts, many religious conservatives have contemplated a partial retreat from political activism, a quest for internal cohesion and cultural resilience that Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has called “the Benedict Option,” after the founder of Western monasticism.

But others clearly look at things a little differently. If this is really a post-Christian society, they seem to be thinking, then Christians need to make sure the meanest, toughest heathen on the block is on their side. So it makes sense to join an alliance of convenience with a strongman, placing themselves under his benevolent protection, because their own leaders have delivered them only to defeat.

And the lure of the strongman is particularly powerful for those believers whose theology was somewhat Trumpian already — nationalistic, prosperity-worshiping, by turns apocalyptic and success-obsessed.

With the steady post-1960s weakening of traditional Christian confessions, the preachers of this kind of gospel — this distinctively American heresy, really — have assumed a new prominence in the religious landscape. Trump, with his canny instinct for where to drive the wedge, has courted exactly these figures. While more orthodox Christians have kept him at arm’s length or condemned him, he’s wooed televangelists and prosperity preachers, and pitched himself to believers already primed to believe that a meretricious huckster with unusual hair might be a vessel of the divine will.

Which he is not, save perhaps in this sense: In the light of Trumpism, many hard truths about American Christianity — its divisions, its failures, its follies, its heresies — stand ruthlessly exposed.

And the truth, we’re told, will set you free.

New York Times: David Brooks, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time.”

Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

I printed out a Times list of the insults Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.

Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”

Washington Post: Michael Gerson, “Trump is the demagogue that our Founding Fathers feared.”

The theory that voters, like customers, are always right has little to do with the American form of government. The founders had little patience for “pure democracy,” which they found particularly vulnerable to demagogues. “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs,” says Federalist 10, “may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” A representative government is designed to frustrate sinister majorities (or committed pluralities), by mediating public views through “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

Trump is the guy your Founding Fathers warned you about. “The question is not ‘Why Trump now?’ ” argues constitutional scholar Matthew J. Franck, “but rather ‘Why not a Trump before now?’ Perhaps some residual self-respect on the part of primary voters has driven them, up to now, to seek experience, knowledge of public policy, character, and responsibility in their candidates. The Trump phenomenon suggests that in a significant proportion of the (nominally) Republican electorate, this self-respect has decayed considerably.”

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.  

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