The title of New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s post-election column was an anguished cry: “America Elects a Bigot.” David Leonhart, another New York Times regular, expressed horror: “We’ve just finished an election that included unprecedented violations of America’s long-held democratic values.” The apocalyptic sentiment was not limited to the American commentariat. BBC correspondent Ben Wright wrote, “With one referendum [Brexit] and a presidential election [Trump], liberal democracy as we’ve known it seems finally, dramatically, to have collapsed in on itself.” Then there are the blogs full of dire rhetoric about how Donald Trump’s victory will bring mass deportations, an upsurge in racist violence, and usher in a new Dark Age.
Tellingly, a similar tone has characterized the right. Dennis Prager expressed fear a few months earlier: “No Congress could stop a President Hillary Clinton. She will finish the job her predecessor started: to fundamentally transform the United States of America. Perhaps forever.” Peggy Noonan reported a plaintive hope expressed by Trump supporters: “I want my country back.” An existential dread was widespread among conservatives. Perhaps we share it. At times, I certainly do.
This bipartisan anxiety represents a remarkable convergence. Our country is bitterly divided, yes, but we are united in fear. In recent months, I spoke to many readers of First Things. They were almost uniformly pessimistic about the future and worried about religious persecution. Meanwhile, students with quite different moral and political views protest at elite universities and call for “safe spaces.” After the election, senior editor Mark Bauerlein skyped into a seminar at a well-known liberal arts college. When the conversation turned to Trump (inevitably, it seems), a young woman said, “I’m terrified.” And it’s not just millennials who feel vulnerable. Many of my liberal friends are convinced our country is being held back by persistent racism, anti-gay animus, and impediments to the progress of women.
As I mentioned a couple of months ago (“Election 2016,” November), there’s a lot of crisis-talk. Fear redoubles resolve and motivates voters, and the Genghis-Khan-is-coming rhetoric helps sell ads and raise money. These factors drive the apocalyptic tone, to be sure. But something else is at work, something more fundamental. Edmund Burke spoke of the “the decent drapery of life.” He thought the “new conquering empire of light and reason” had “rudely torn off” that which we use “to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.” Over the last fifty years, something similar has been happening. A new conquering empire has torn off a great deal of what makes our shared culture habitable.
It must have been in the early hours of November 9 that New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote a frank confession. “With Donald Trump now elected president, I have more fear than I’ve ever had in my 63 years . . .” Trump is a “divider,” a “compulsive liar” who “shoots from the hip” and consorts with “alt-right extremists.” Friedman tries to extend himself in empathy for Trump voters: “My gut tells me [their support for Trump] has much less to do with trade or income gaps and much more to do with culture and many Americans’ feeling of ‘homelessness.’” Middle Americans went red because immigration and demographic change have “threatened the sense of community of many middle-class whites.” Technological change “has either wiped out their job or transformed their workplace in ways they find disorienting.” For many, life is no longer securely anchored in workplace and community. The resulting homelessness makes voters vulnerable to “the simplistic solutions touted by a would-be strongman.” He says he hopes Trump the president will surprise him by being a better man than Trump the candidate. But he admits that, after the shock of the election, his mind is elsewhere. “At the moment I am in anguish, frightened for my country and for our unity. And for the first time, I feel homeless in America.”
Friedman’s image of homelessness seems hyperbolic, but it is in fact apt. After Trump’s victory, liberals and progressives feel adrift in uncertain waters—just as conservatives like me find ourselves entertaining dark thoughts about religious persecution and a flaying political correctness. For all the talk of “inclusion,” “diversity,” and “identity,” our society cannot do what any shared culture must do, which is to promote Gemeinschaft, the shared sense of belonging that allows us to feel at home in the world. The cultural politics of the last fifty years, largely driven by progressives, has failed.
In his City of God, St. Augustine observes that all men seek peace. Pax means more than absence of violence. In Augustine’s thought, which follows the biblical use of the term, peace means “concord” or “accordance.” Both words connote a harmony of hearts. “Even what is perverted must of necessity be in, or derived from, or associated with—that is, in a sense, at peace with—some part of the order of things among which it has its being or of which it consists.” As social animals, we thus desire a “tranquility of order” that allows us to live in concord with others. Peace in this deeper sense provides a settled background for our raucous political conflict, a stable home in which we can let down our guard and be at rest.
St. Augustine recognized that our desire for peace will never be fully satisfied in this life. Our true homeland is the heavenly kingdom, the City of God, where the will of our Creator ensures that we are in full accord with him, and with each other in our common worship of him. Here below, however, we rightly seek a relative peace, the concord that comes from a common civic love, a shared accordance with the general spirit that animates public life. We rightly desire the solidarity that, however imperfect, warms our hearts and reassures us that we are among friends.
What’s striking about our culture right now is that it seems unable to renew, or even sustain, solidarity. Racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia . . . The ranks of the oppressed are now quite large, and growing larger every day. For those not numbered among the victims by the moral and political fashions of our time, there’s a counter-language of reverse discrimination that allows them to cast themselves as victims as well. Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men bemoans the decline of manliness: “It’s tragic to think that heroic man’s great destiny is to become economic man, that men will be reduced to craven creatures who crawl across the globe competing for money, who spend their nights dreaming up new ways to swindle each other. That’s the path we’re on.” It would not be hard to find a feminist equally pessimistic, expressing a similar sentiment that powerful forces are against her, though for opposite reasons.
At first glance, this shared feeling that we’re under attack makes little sense. As President Obama tried to remind us over the last year, things are pretty good. Unemployment is down; growth may be disappointing, but we’re not in a recession. The world remains dangerous, but we’re not engaged in any grinding, futile wars. There have been no massive terrorist attacks on the United States since September 11, 2001. The gains in civil rights over the last two generations have been extraordinary. As Hillary Clinton’s counter-slogan put it, “America is already great.” Even if we reject this as Pollyannaish politicking, there can be no question that the troubles we face are minor compared to the upheavals of the 1960s, to say nothing of the crises of the 1930s. Black Lives Matter is not the Black Panthers; David Duke is, at most, a back-seat bobble-head statue compared to the life-sized, fire-breathing George Wallace of 1968. Today, there’s not the slightest whiff of revolution in the air.
Yet, strangely, many of us, perhaps most, are pessimistic and on edge. We no longer feel at home.
The coarsening of our culture is partly to blame. Movies, video games, TV, and popular music are violent, pornographic, and filled with aggression. Screens are everywhere now, and on them the F-bomb is used frequently as a verbal punch in the face. We’re constantly under assault—not literally, perhaps, but visually and verbally. Social media and the web make us more vulnerable as well. As anyone who has been attacked by a Twitter mob knows, the new media break down barriers of time and space that once insulated us from such things. More insidiously, the web brings everything before our eyes. When I was growing up in a suburb in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1970s, racism continued as a powerful force. But for the most part it remained fugitive and hidden. Today, a Google search directs us to shocking images and rebarbative bloggers. And if we’re already anxious and fearful, we will post a link on on our Facebook pages to alert our like-minded friends to the horror and warn them of the impending danger. We huddle electronically—and are ever more vulnerable because exposed to the entire world.
Political correctness compounds rather than alleviates our homelessness. Measures of anxiety and psychological weakness among young people have increased significantly in recent decades. This rise stems, paradoxically, from our efforts to minimize risks, both physical and emotional. We police young people to make sure they don’t say or do anything hurtful or offensive. As a consequence, few learn how to respond to adversity. Unprepared to deal with setbacks, the rising generation approaches a great deal of life with anxiety and more than a little terror.
These factors are salient, but there’s a deeper reason why we’re feeling vulnerable and on edge: the anti-metaphysical consensus that dominates public life. For a long time now we’ve been trained to believe that the really real is material. Over the last generation, economics has become the queen of the social sciences. Those of us educated into modern critical theory may pooh-pooh economic thinking as simplistic, emphasizing instead class interests (Marx), the will-to-power (Nietzsche), or an instinctual dynamic at work in society (Darwin) or our psyches (Freud). These modes of economic, cultural, social, and psychological theory are all very different. But they all follow a common, disenchanting pattern: The true springs of human life are material, primitive, and base.
As a consequence, the intellectual culture that shapes journalists, commentators, artists, and politicians encourages us to believe that serious social analysis tears away the decent drapery of life to unmask the real motives, interests, and drives at work. Recently, economist Robert Shiller opined that the modern nation-state is really a social contract designed to protect our individual self-interest. The reductionist move is typical, just as characteristic of progressives as conservatives. One can easily find someone who defines America as a vehicle for white male privilege or as an instrument of western imperialism. This is the main reason we feel homeless and on edge.
Russell Kirk once reiterated the poetic commonplace, “Imagination rules the world.” Our imagination today, left and right, is dominated by the disenchanting logic of a reductive materialism, which is why so much seems sour and inhospitable. It’s also why so many, again both left and right, express apocalyptic sentiments. We know we can’t live amidst the metaphysical poverty. We desire peace, and a concord of hearts requires enchantment. The post-Christian, post-metaphysical elite that runs our society, chatters on TV, and catechizes us about what is really going on, can’t provide enchantment. The great and the good can’t sustain the peace we need in order to be at home with our fellow citizens. Thus the anti-establishment populism that is gaining ground and threatening the status quo.
“Home” is a physical place, to be sure. For this son of Baltimore, the enervating, saturating heat of a hot, humid day is caressingly familiar and oddly reassuring. But “home” is also a many-roomed mansion of stories and dreams. At a time when our still young nation faced civil war, Abraham Lincoln sought the restoration of concord. He knew that peace requires renewing the “mystic chords of memory,” that shared music of the imagination that draws men together. Given the predations of slavery that eventually triggered the war, this repair would require humble submission to the inscrutable judgments of a wise and benevolent God. As Lincoln recognized (and as Martin Luther King did a hundred years later), peace cannot be achieved by itemizing “the defects of our naked, shivering nature.” We cannot critique our way to concord. Given our fallen nature, any true peace, however partial, must be consecrated rather than contracted. We must look up to something noble, even divine, in order to be at home in our country.
The Dangers Ahead
I have been trying to ring the alarm bell for months now. The populist sentiment surging in Europe and America cannot be explained away as the epiphenomenon of globalization, nor should it be descried as “white identity politics” or some other pathology. It is true that people vote their interests. Jobs and economic prospects certainly matter. Moreover, public life is always perverted by social pathologies. The sin of Adam infects us all. But these same voters are rebelling against the metaphysical poverty of elites. A politics of meaning is reasserting its claim over public life.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, let me ring the alarm bell louder still. Put starkly, populism reveals growing desire for a return of the strong gods of nation and peoplehood, blood and soil. One must be innocent of any knowledge of the history of the first half of the twentieth century not to be worried. The strong gods have enflamed collective passions, passions that in living memory shook the settled order of things to its foundation. We are entering a dangerous time.
As populism beckons the strong gods to return, the impulse of our governing class is to employ the tried-and-true therapy of disenchantment. I described that therapy above. It depends upon a reductive materialism that promises to expose root causes and underlying interests. Thus we hear a great deal of talk about racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia. Or we listen to experts explain how economic globalization and immigration have affected the job prospects of less-educated Americans. No matter what the angle, however, the argument goes like this: The strong gods of nation, heritage, and peoplehood are not real. They are projections of lower human impulses such as economic self-interest, primitive group instincts, or phobias of various sorts.
A similar strategy has been used to disenchant strong moral claims, which are part of the traditional cultures some now want to renew, if only half-knowingly, which is why populism is seen by progressives as an enemy of the personal liberation projects of the last fifty years. The dictatorship of relativism serves as a therapy of weakening, a key element of the catechesis of our time that seeks to minimize loves and loyalties that impede further relaxation of social norms, as well as the frictionless circulation of capital, goods, and people in a globalized system that will make us both wealthier and freer, or so we are told.
Today’s buzzwords give priority to weakening. Progressives favor terms such as “diversity” and “inclusion.” These are softening words, meant to break down firm boundaries. Even words like “empowerment,” which suggest strengthening, are equivocal, because they imply the need to remove impediments and open things up. The left encourages identity politics, but it too is equivocal. Our “identities” are always affirmed under the sign of choice. One is free to identify—or not. And identity politics gets promoted against the background assumption that all identities can be domesticated and managed by multiculturalism, another therapy of disenchantment.
Progressives do not have a monopoly on disenchantment. Conservatives gravitate toward market-oriented images such as “innovation,” the deus ex machina that promises to deliver us from our present limitations without the bother of something as troublesome and demanding as politics. Social pathologies are going to be addressed by “social entrepreneurs.” These instances illustrate how economics has colonized the social and political imaginations of twenty-first-century conservatives.
The therapy of disenchantment is losing its power. Elites in Europe and America reiterate withering denunciations in order to disqualify and discredit populism (“America Elects a Bigot”). But that’s not working. Trump’s victory was stunning on many levels, but by my reckoning the most significant was the degree to which he revealed the cultural weakness of elites. They are increasingly unable to control public opinion by setting the limits of the respectable and the permitted.
The loss of cultural power does not surprise me. The disenchanting therapies favored by post-Christian elites make us feel homeless. They thus collide with the logic of populism, and in that collision the potency of a substantial something—even ill-considered and potentially destructive collectivist impulses and sentiments—overwhelms the emptiness of a reductive nothing. Populism seeks a consolidation of collective will, a gathering of strength to break the hold of the status quo. The experience of solidarity and newfound (or recovered) political agency inspires, regardless of the political objectives. This is why populism has been both left and right in the past, and why Trumpian populism is a bit of both. In the end, it’s the satisfaction of having gathered oneself into a singular, concentrated expression of will that energizes populism, not policy outcomes. This satisfaction isn’t likely to be disenchanted by critique.
My abiding fear is that our technocrats, pundits, and political leaders cannot grasp the metaphysical allure of the strengthening dynamic that characterizes populism. John Paul II taught a central truth about the human person: We seek to give ourselves away in love. This does not happen easily or automatically. It requires us to gather ourselves. A person must consolidate his will to overcome his bondage to sinful self-enclosure—doing so for the sake of love’s demands. There’s a paradoxical strengthening of the self that’s an intrinsic part of self-giving.
The need for concentration also characterizes the social and political dimensions of our lives. When the Catholic tradition identifies solidarity as a fundamental social good, it points to the communal expression of the anthropological truth John Paul II expressed. As social animals, we seek to give ourselves away in a common, shared love, the basis for the peace St. Augustine identified as our deepest desire. This, too, requires a consolidating and strengthening dynamic. We have to muster ourselves, rally ourselves, to escape the illusion that we can live for ourselves. Because our elites believe so strongly in a materialist account of the human person—and because they are relentless in the application of therapies of disenchantment—the consolidating and strengthening of the collective is necessarily anti-establishment, and likely to become more so.
Greek philosophy and Old Testament prophecy encourage us to unmask and disenchant false loves. For this reason, our elites imagine themselves carrying forward the best of our traditions. But we can’t disenchant the very need for love’s loyalty. The weakening rhetoric of our anti-metaphysical elite does more than criticize false loves; it tries to neuter our desire to give ourselves away in love. Nonjudgmentalism does not urge us to reject false judgments; it requires us to avoid making any strong judgments. In the anti-metaphysical outlook that dominates today, there is nothing worthy of our love. This approach, which I predict elites will impose more and more rigorously, will make things worse, not better.
The concluding paragraphs of Eugene Vodolazkin’s essay “The New Middle Ages” (August/September 2016) have helped me think more clearly about our historical moment. As a Russian, Vodolazkin has lived through disenchantments more severe than our own, the first by way of a brutal Marxist materialism, and the second wrought by free-market expressions of ideological materialism exported by the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this respect, the Russians are ahead. Unlike the West, they have experienced an anti-metaphysical culture without the palliations of wealth and luxury. Perhaps, therefore, they are ahead are in other respects as well. Vodolazkin senses a turning of history’s wheel. He sees the advent of a new era, one he calls the Epoch of Concentration.
“Concentration” is at work in resurgent nationalism, as many commentators point out, but Vodolazkin helps us see populism in a more metaphysical way. “The cult of the individual now places us outside divine and human community,” he writes. Disenchantment has, in the most important sense, left us homeless. Nothing frames our lives. Nothing calls us to go outside ourselves in love. I’m more and more convinced that this “nothingness” is driving widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. It feeds the growing political restlessness that’s willing to take risks, perhaps imprudent ones, on leaders such as Trump—and, for that matter, Putin.
Plenty of commentators have linked the two. Few, however, will entertain the thought that the entire West shares a common metaphysical vacuum—“the cult of the individual,” or, as I have put it, a materialism that disenchants. Nor has our chattering class noticed that the working class in New Hampshire and elsewhere now features social pathologies akin to those that nearly shipwrecked Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when alcoholism was rampant and life expectancies plunged. Someone unaware of twentieth-century history who visits an old steel town like Steubenville, Ohio, would have to assume either that America had lost a major war and suffers the burden of onerous reparations—or that is beholden to a particularly brutal and inhuman ideology.
As I wrote in the Catholic Herald after the presidential election, “the political imaginations of our post-Christian elites are ‘desertified,’ to borrow an arresting image from Pope Francis.” As religious believers, we need to avoid contributing to the parched moral and political imagination of our time. Ethnic solidarity, patriotic loyalty, and a certain thrill in being able to come together to put a stick in the eye of remote and condescending elites—these are unstable and dangerous impulses. Yet they are also embers of love’s desire for something higher than self-interest. They show that ordinary people want to clothe their “shivering, naked humanity” in garments of solidarity.
In the Epoch of Concentration, our job as Christians is to promote more enduring and higher loves. Today’s populism must be anchored in a renewal of marriage and family. The lonely, atomized, homeless man—in this instance, especially the male—is more likely to rally behind the cruel gods of Blood and Soil than someone embedded in a network of familial relations and responsibilities. More important still, the growing desire for a return of the strong gods must be purified by a greater, supernatural desire for God, the one in whom alone we can find our true home.
The work of anchoring and purifying does not mean refraining from criticism of Trump, Trump voters, or any other species of populism. But we must remember the truth John Paul II teaches. We are made to love, both collectively and individually. This truth about the human condition will assert itself perversely if met with nothing other than critique and disenchantment. The only lasting remedy for false and destructive loves is more humane and higher loves.