It’s a full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Written with pungency, “The Flight 93 Election” was published on the Claremont Review of Books website under the name Publius Decius Mus, a fourth-century b.c. Roman consul whose heroic self-sacrifice in battle saved the day for his countrymen. (Flight 93 was the fourth airplane in the September 11 attack, the one on which passengers rushed the cockpit in a desperate attempt to dislodge the terrorists who had taken control.) The long essay strikes blows against a weak-kneed conservative establishment with a rhetorical zeal befitting the pseudonym.
Decius also explains why voting for Trump makes sense. We’re all aware of Trump’s vices. His political principles are muddy. His narcissism is towering. And then there’s his contribution to the coarsening of our public life. Under normal circumstances, any one of these factors would be disqualifying. But circumstances aren’t normal. As Decius points out, for a long time American conservatives have been ringing alarms. “Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. . . . And so on and drearily on.” We’re on the cultural and political equivalent of Flight 93, and Trump is the candidate ready to rush the cockpit.
The soundness of Decius’s endorsement of Trump depends on the cogency of his assessment of our situation: We are heading off a cliff. I’m not sure things are so dire. But then again I’m not sure they’re not. For a long time now I too have been harboring dark thoughts about our present moment. Our post-Protestant WASP establishment has become aggressively partisan. LGBT activists now press a culture war that demands unconditional surrender. A great deal of conservatism answers to a donor-ocracy that believes the world turns on debates about tax rates. The once expansive middle class has eroded, depriving our political system of ballast. Contingency, flux, and impermanence invade what used to be stable forms of life, marriage and family most especially.
When it comes to elections, however, I’m suspicious of talk of crisis. During the 2012 Romney campaign, I heard conservative fundraisers and pundits intone that the upcoming vote represented our “last chance.” “A near- majority of Americans are dependent on government pay-outs,” they said. “Once that cohort surpasses 50 percent, the low-tax, limited government message is doomed.” I’ve heard the same crisis-talk when it comes to religious liberty, as well as Justice Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court. Over time, one begins to feel used. There’s always a crisis. Rush to the barricades! Donate. Donate. Vote. Vote. Vote.
Crisis-talk is not limited to the right. Today’s campaign for transgender rights, like yesterday’s for gay marriage, is wrapped in the urgency of the civil rights movement. The possibility that a baker or florist might decline to provide services for a gay wedding gets characterized as a betrayal of our nation’s deepest commitments. We hear there’s a crisis of sexual assault on college campuses. ID requirements for voters mark a return of Jim Crow. Again, to the barricades!
There’s political gamesmanship in all this. As I wrote in “Bigot-Baiting” (August/September), the contemporary Democratic party has a political incentive to promote various “crises” of hate, bigotry, racism, and homophobia, which is why Hillary Clinton placed a good portion of Trump voters in “a basket of deplorables.” The same was true for the Romney campaign. Nothing opens donor wallets as effectively as an atmosphere of crisis: The takers are about to overwhelm the makers! Trump also exploits the atmosphere of crisis, conjuring images of immigrants who rape and murder.
We should discount crisis-talk that tries to manipulate us as voters. But we can’t ignore a central fact, perhaps the central fact, about our political moment. Our society is troubled. Dissatisfaction with the status quo, even hostility, has become widespread. Consider Black Lives Matter, an organization very different from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movement wants to “end the war on black people,” and calls for reparations. It is “committed to disrupting the Western prescribed nuclear family,” seeks to foster “a queer-affirming network,” and works to “dismantle cisgender privilege.”
Mainstream liberals do not regard Black Lives Matter as extreme, but instead defend the movement as the natural heir to the civil rights movement. It has received millions of dollars in support, much of it coordinated by the Ford Foundation, a long time bastion of liberal noblesse oblige. So, it seems our liberal establishment thinks things are very bad, so much so that they are sympathetic with a movement that regards our entire social structure, from the family through sexual identity to race relations, as deeply and profoundly unjust.
The Ford Foundation agrees with Decius: Our society is on a disastrous flight path. They disagree, of course, about what’s wrong. For the progressives at the Ford Foundation, America is antigay, committed to the male-female household as normative for raising children, inclined toward a xenophobic nationalism, and murderously racist. For a conservative like Decius, America is debilitated by breakdown of the traditional family, hobbled by intrusive regulation, and policed by political correctness. But the underlying consensus is remarkable: We are headed over a cliff; the current regime needs to be overthrown.
I’m torn. Part of me agrees with Decius. In the “While We’re At It” in this issue, I quote Martin Castro, the chairman of the United States Human Rights Commission. He states that people like me should not be able to use religious liberty to justify “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.” In the June/July issue, I quoted Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet, who equates people like me with Nazis. Maybe America isn’t heading toward a cliff, but powerful people seem to want to throw me off one. And then there’s the surreal quality of today’s public discourse. Some colleges and universities are issuing guidelines about the full array of salutations and pronouns that must be used, if demanded, when speaking to, er, men and women.
This combination of malice and unreality makes me want to join any movement that promises to smash as much as possible. In that regard, I’m like the Black Lives Matter activists and their gilded liberal supporters, though my bludgeon is Donald Trump rather than street protests.
We should not underestimate this motive. When one is scheduled for execution, the appearance of a man to lead a prison riot, even a dangerous man, is an attractive prospect. Many who feel as though they’ve been beaten up over the last eight years lean toward Trump. This explains the strong support Trump gets from the evangelical base, in spite of the misgivings of their leadership. They know they’re in the “basket of deplorables” who, if not scheduled for execution, are designated for reeducation, and, failing that, cultural exile.
So, yes, I’m with Decius, ready to join the prison riot. Then I remind myself that it’s a naive optimism that imagines things are so bad they can’t get worse.
We’re at a critical juncture, not just in the United States, but in the West as a whole. Because of the immigration crisis, Europeans see more clearly than us that the assumptions that have guided public life in recent decades are now under strain. The establishment can neither resist welcoming the waves of Muslim refugees, nor can it integrate them and reassure the native-born. Our issues are different in important ways, but for us as well the postwar era is reaching various dead-ends. That’s why this election is ugly, and why, no matter who is elected, odds are strong that it will heighten our sense of crisis rather than mitigate it.
Our Failing Regime
Donald Trump is breaking many rules of political engagement. With the election only weeks away as I write, he has offered no cogent economic policies. Corporate titans shun him and Nobel laureates write against his candidacy. He has attacked the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, causing some Republicans to announce their support of his adversary. He sins against political correctness and refuses to apologize. He gets away with all this and more. This is strong evidence that the regime that took shape in the United States and throughout the West after World War II is losing its legitimacy. Many of the assumptions we took to be dogmas of political life are being challenged.
One important dogma of the postwar regime concerns the relation between government and economics. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal inaugurated a politics of prosperity, a promise that, with the right policy-makers in charge, government can deliver economic growth and rising standards of living for everyone. (This claim is so central to our political imaginations that we fail to realize that it was not prominent in earlier eras.) For a number of decades after World War II, a Keynesian consensus about how to fulfill this promise held sway. The Reagan revolution introduced more market-oriented policies, but the dogma remained. If policy-makers cut taxes and reduce regulation, growth will follow.
The dogma that economic policy is all-important explains why our political establishment is so flabbergasted by Trump’s insouciance. It’s become a truism that successful candidates must convince voters that they can deliver prosperity: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Voters, however, seem to have lost confidence in this dogma, which is one reason “technocrat” has become a term of abuse. Their loss of confidence stems from the fact that policy-makers seem increasingly impotent in the new, globalized economic system.
Central banks throughout the developed world have embarked on astonishing monetary experiments without clear, positive results. True believers in Reaganism continue to promote tax-cutting as an economic stimulant, but they are less and less persuasive. Economists regularly tell us “there’s no going back” to regulatory and economic arrangements that produced broad prosperity after World War II, which is a tacit acknowledgment that we face changed circumstances. Global capitalism has transcended the nation-state.
Mainstream American liberalism wants to save the prosperity dogma by transferring policy-making authority to entities that are international in scope and authority. The idea is to reproduce on a global scale what we were able to achieve on a national level during the glorious early decades of the postwar era. This is the agenda suggested by Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Mainstream American conservatism promotes a different version of globalism, but it too seeks to perpetuate the postwar regime. It endorses the ever-freer movement of capital, goods, and labor throughout the world as the way to raise standards of living for all. We need to scale up the Reagan revolution and make it global.
We see a convergence, not of policies, but instead of assumptions that accord with the postwar regime’s dogma. The conventional thinking on the American left and right presents one or another form of globalism as the solution to our present economic pessimism and mistrust of the efficacy of policy-making. Our establishment, left and right, promotes a global neo-liberalism within which they plan to continue a familiar debate. It’s the wisdom of more redistribution and regulation versus the merits of a free-market approach, now framed in international terms. A recent think piece by Yale economist Robert J. Shiller epitomizes this approach. Its title: “The Coming Anti-National Revolution.”
Trump has pronounced himself opposed to “globalism,” which seems to mean a rejection of both liberal and conservative strategies for sustaining the prosperity dogma. He makes protectionist gestures and promises to renegotiate trade deals. Some think this nostalgic, a fantasy that we can go back to an earlier era when our economic system was not yet globalized. But I’m not sure that’s the correct interpretation. Trump’s campaign has been indifferent to criticisms that protectionism will harm our economy, and it has ignored the chorus of experts demanding policy details. Perhaps, therefore, Trump simply asserts a nationalist sentiment, and does so without regard to economic consequences. If so, he is challenging the postwar regime at a fundamental level.
Nationalism is also the most straightforward way to describe Trump’s blunt statements about immigration and his signature promise to “build a wall.” A great deal has been written about the economic impact of legal and illegal immigration. On the whole, however, those who agree with Trump are unmoved by arguments about the economic gains that some say flow from open-door immigration policies. The same is true for those who are incensed by Trump’s rhetoric. For them, “building a wall” is a moral outrage, not bad economic policy.
The world is changing. Our most heated public debates now circle around non-economic issues: cultural continuity, national solidarity, securing a common inheritance. The contrast to the thrust of the Romney and Obama campaigns in 2012, and that election’s main themes, is striking.
The post-war regime never denied the importance of national solidarity. But things have been changing over the decades. The civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests challenged an earlier, cheerleading Americanism. The end of the Cold War removed the external pressure that sustained it. For more than two decades, precisely at the time we’ve been losing confidence in the notion that good economic policies will lift all boats, we’ve been fighting more and more bitterly about what, exactly, we should endorse as our shared American inheritance. A politics of meaning is superseding the politics of prosperity. In his crude way, Trump sees this. In Europe the change is more obvious. An establishment/anti-establishment politics that revolves around immigration and national identity has suddenly eclipsed the more familiar center-left/center-right politics that debates how to secure the greatest prosperity for as many as possible.
The second dogma of our postwar regime is American exceptionalism: We are the uniquely global nation. This dogma underwrites a robust internationalism. Throughout the postwar era, justifications for our muscular foreign policy and extensive military commitments effortlessly combined nationalism with internationalism. Since the end of World War II, we’ve been able to believe that what’s good for America is good for the world, and what’s good for the world is good for America.
During the Cold War, this dogma made a great deal of sense. Since the fall of the Soviet empire we’ve cultivated the dream of a globe united by commerce, policed by American power, and sanctified by human rights. This entails building international institutions ordered toward the promotion of American values. We’ve assumed that promoting such a future for the entire world will at the same time advance the interests of all Americans.
Events have undermined confidence in this project. The patent failure of the Bush administration’s efforts to remake the Middle East has led to dismay. The Obama administration’s naive miscalculations about the real consequences of the Arab Spring mark another failure. Most importantly, the remarkable economic gains of those who have leading positions in the global economic system contrast sharply with the stagnant incomes and falling prospects for many middle class Americans, to say nothing of those on the margins. More than anything else, this unequal participation in the upside of globalization undermines the conceit that what’s good for the world is good for America.
Here, again, Trump promotes nationalism. He says that we need to reassess our military commitments, weighing them against a stricter standard of national interest. He rejects the notion that America must take responsibility for the world, while at the same time conveying a pugilistic image, willing to strike ruthlessly when crossed by foreign powers. Critics call this “isolationism.” It’s more accurate to say that Trump’s rhetoric suggests a return to Westphalian internationalism, one based on the balance of power among sovereign nations rather than an American-led internationalism and development of ever-stronger, supranational institutions.
The third dogma of the postwar era is managerial: Leadership is a matter of expertise and pragmatic adjustment rather than particular loyalties and firm principles. In the 1950s, a pragmatic liberalism claimed to have transcended ideology. This was mostly seen in terms of economic expertise (the first dogma), but it had a cultural dimension. Socio logist and psychologists were recruited to help ordinary people “adjust” to life in a modern industrial society.
The 1960s disrupted this managerial conceit, at least when it came to culture. Black Power, ethnic consciousness, feminism, and then the gay movement emerged and sought to transform society without permission from the experts. Soon, however, our postwar regime reconsolidated around a consensus about how to manage these challenges. Affirmative action was a way of melding the interests of protesting groups (at least at the leadership level) with the establishment consensus. Multiculturalism evolved as a therapy of recognition, and political correctness now serves as an elaborate social etiquette designed to defuse social tensions and promote feelings of inclusion. Diversity has become an all-purpose salve, useful because so vague and malleable.
At its most extreme, the postwar regime believes that it stands above all traditions and identities as a meta-culture of therapeutic empathy and multicultural expertise. More often the consensus encourages us to juggle. President Obama is exemplary. He’s at once an African-American who plays the role of champion for his community’s concerns, and the thoughtful head of state, sensitive to the diversity of identity-concerns in our country as a whole. In this movement between roles he remains faithful to the promise of the postwar regime: There are no conflicts, animosities, differences, or divisions that cannot be resolved, or at least palliated, by the right techniques of sensitive management.
Like the dogma of prosperity, the elaborate choreo graphy of cultures and identities under the guidance of the Great and the Good is being discredited. This is particularly evident in Europe, where the migrant crisis has exposed the hubris of the postwar establishment’s conceit that it can confect a multicultural society. At a press conference this summer, Angela Merkel sought to reassure her countrymen. “This is a historic test in times of globalization. We will manage it.” Subsequent regional elections suggest the German voters aren’t buying her promise. National identity can’t be “managed.”
In America, our universities constitute the most culturally engineered communities in human history, and they are increasingly uneasy rather than more at peace. Elsewhere, racial tension has re-erupted, and this in spite of a White House in which the first generation of black leaders empowered by affirmative action exercise a great deal of power. Anti-immigrant sentiment plays a newly important role in our politics, again in spite of globalization and technology that we’ve been told will promote greater harmony.
Those with doubts about the failing project of cultural management are met with denunciation: fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic. The managerial elite, even corporate managers, are becoming culture warriors, pronouncing “inclusion” as they plunge into battle with slashing epithets. This suggests a growing contradiction. The managers are supposed to stand above cultural tensions in order to dispense impartial therapies of tolerance and diversity—and yet they’re more and more visibly partisan. Other contradictions become evident as well. Almost everyone thinks and says the same things in situations where “diversity” is minutely engineered. Then there’s the increased policing of thought and speech meant to keep the contradictions hidden. Would anyone imagine saying what he was actually thinking at a meeting called by an organization’s “chief diversity officer”?
Trump manipulates our declining confidence in a managed culture with intuitive genius. His apparent inability to feel shame allows him to violate political correctness again and again, which of course attracts outrage and media frenzies. The circus-like atmosphere mocks the high seriousness of the multicultural etiquette that the postwar consensus has come to regard as indispensible for global civilization.
He offers more than a politically incorrect insurgency, however. Nationalism is Trump’s signature, and it promises an older form of solidarity. Patriotism is a natural love that encourages the development of an organic unity rather than the engineered unity of multiculturalism. The same is true for European populism, which also revolves around a revived nationalist rhetoric. This evokes, in turn, furious denunciations from our political establishments, both in the United States and Europe. Here, a desire for secure borders is interpreted by some to be a sign of resurgent racism. In Europe, a desire to significantly limit Muslim immigration gets interpreted as resurgent fascism. The blunt, rhetorically desperate quality of these responses to populism is a sign that the postwar regime is failing.
I don’t pretend to have a philosophy of history other than the one we find in the Bible, which lumps together the last two millennia as the time of agonized longing for Christ’s return—and ever-fiercer resistance to his lordship. About the fate of the postwar regime scripture remains silent, and I distrust talk of decline and its twin, progress. But I wonder about 2016. The civilizational crisis of 1914–1945 cast a long and defining shadow over the West. That was more than seventy years ago, two full generations. Given the passage of time, it would be odd were the postwar regime not losing its grip.
The End of Weakening
I’ve struggled to convey what I see as the deeper sources of our political distempers. Let me try again, this time more in the form of declaration than analysis and argument. The postwar regime sought to bury the strong, demanding high gods of nationalism and ideo logy that had laid waste to Europe between 1914 and 1945. Our loyalties were to be weakened so that we would not be enflamed by destructive passions. This required draining the sacred from everything. Our cultural inheritances became subject to critique, unmasking, and disenchantment.
The project of weakening now reaches to our bodies, which we are told can no longer be trusted to make us men or women. Not just nature, but truth itself must be neutered. The dictatorship of relativism promises peace. Leaders are to devote themselves to prosperity and the enlargement of individual freedoms. Softer, kinder, secular gods are to rule—health, wealth, and pleasure. These are gods of utility to be ministered to by experts rather than priests and prophets.
“Man does not live by bread alone.” The West is beginning to rebel. People do not want to float through life as atomized, utility-maximizing machines. They want the strong gods to return. They want to recover the possibility of noble sacrifice on behalf of something higher than the lonely, inwardly-turned self.
The managerial class has not been ignorant of this desire. A cosmopolitan commitment to the good of the entire world is offered as a noble calling. But such a vocation is abstract and ungrounded. It is an idea, not a community of sentiment or living loyalty. Identity politics are meant to provide a context for loyalty to something warm with particularity. But this has proven sterile, tending to irritate rather than satisfy the human need for something higher.
Not surprisingly, then, the nation has returned to prominence. Patriotic reconsolidation serves as the uniting theme of Trump’s appeal. It’s at work in the political earthquakes shaking the European establishment. By my reading of the signs of the times, the twenty-first century in the West is very likely to see a renewed politics of strengthening, a reinfusion of the sacred into public affairs. The dangers of idolatry are significant. Our establishments are not wrong to be anxious, even defensive. But what worked after Auschwitz—the strategy of weakening—is losing its effectiveness. Calling a renewed desire to affirm the sacred character of our nation “fascism” gets us nowhere. What we need today are spiritual, transcendent loyalties. Patriotic love, yes, but one tutored by higher loves.