We often hear that conservatism comes from a sober recognition of limits—getting mugged by reality. We are fallible, fallen creatures, and the conservative learns to doubt the efficacy of the grand schemes of progressivism, efforts of social transformation that often require the power of government. Ignorance, self-interest, greed, hubris, sloth—these and other vices, so stubbornly resistant to the beneficent ministrations of progress, subvert even the best plans. The conservative, therefore, argues for political humility. We should seek to ameliorate injustices and make marginal improvements in our political system. But let’s not imagine we can perfect society with a masterstroke of social engineering.
Conservatism certainly draws from this skeptical insight into the limits of politics. Good intentions aren’t enough, compromise is almost always necessary, and life is unpredictable. But conservatism has an aspect other than cold realism about our fallen condition. There’s a warm element of piety in conservatism that encourages us to relish the givenness of things. As Yuval Levin put it, “conservatism is gratitude.”
St. Augustine illuminates the disposition of gratitude when he identifies two fundamental modes of relating to reality: use and enjoyment. To use means taking up what is before us for the purpose of some greater end. Most of us, most of the time, are in some sense working toward goals of one sort or another, and so we are oriented toward the world in the mode of use. Enjoyment has a different character. When we enjoy something, we are grateful for it, resting in the blessing of its presence. St. Augustine teaches that we can truly enjoy only God, and others in God. We seek rest in that which is eternal and unchanging. All created things are finite and subject to change, and therefore cannot give us lasting, final rest. That only God can sustain.
In a strict sense, Augustine is right. God alone provides rest. Yet we don’t go through life “in a strict sense.” There are finite realities that, though not divine, have a sacred character we enjoy and in which we find rest. These dimensions of life evoke responses of gratitude. Our families provide the most obvious example. They are not perfect, nor are they eternal. Loved ones die; children can grow up and rebel; we quarrel. Yet we relate to our families in the mode of enjoyment, not use. My family is not ideal. None are. But it’s mine, and that alone is a source of joy. I did not choose them; they did not choose me. This transcendence of purpose and usefulness gives our experience of family a sacredness that is the source of great consolation. My parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins are many things, but it is their givenness, their “assignment” to me, that allows me to rest in them.
A nation is not a family. But classical thinkers have assumed there are analogies, which is why notions of fatherland and motherland also have connotations of sacredness. Here, too, we are encouraged to enjoy that which is given. I’m a proud American. By my measure, New York City is a remarkable testimony to human creativity and enterprise. The landscapes of the American West are stunning. Our Constitution is wise and long-lasting; our military might awesome. But more than pride, I feel gratitude that runs deeper. A nationalist boasts. He uses his country to enhance his self-esteem or to conquer and dominate. A patriot enjoys his country. He rests in it.
This too involves accepting limitations. But it is an acceptance based on gratitude. I am, by the grace of God, a citizen of this country, not others—and not the more perfect country of my imagination, a progressive temptation. The conservative venerates the Constitution, not because it’s the best, nor because our system of government cannot be improved, but simply because it is ours. The same goes for our history and our patriotic traditions. The George Washington of our collective imagination is colored by myth, and our national heritage is besmirched by injustice. The conservative knows that, just as we know the flaws of our parents and our children. Yet the conservative cherishes our collective consciousness. This does not lead to passivity in the face of failure and injustice. The disposition of gratitude can motivate the efforts of reform and renewal. One needs to be loyal in order to make the sacrifices necessary to advance that which one loves, and gratitude encourages loyalty. Yet reform remains secondary for the conservative. What is primary is the deeper enjoyment of the givenness of who we are, a joy that allows us to rest in our national heritage.
Modern liberalism discourages rest. We must work in the present for the sake of the future. Everything is subject to improvement, which means we are required to forsake the mode of enjoyment. The injustices tolerated by our system of government cry out for remedy. We need a living Constitution, one plastic and available for the great and the good to use in order to bring us into a better future. The same goes for our history and traditions. They must be critiqued and updated so that they are more diverse and inclusive. By this way of thinking, gratitude for the given brings complacency, and complacency is an enemy of the future.
Thus, the progressive mind disenchants reality so that we are not tempted to enjoy and rest in it. This has become the dominant approach of our era. Literature needs to be dissolved into race, class, and gender. Law students must be taught that the law serves as an instrument of power. The family is a factory of repression. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. What we receive as given is, at root, the present form of what the dead have used to advance their interests. Even the natural world is a vast arena of competition in which the fittest seek to survive, commandeering the flux of DNA for their own blind purposes. To enjoy is to be deceived and used by hidden others.
Many American conservatives participate in the spiritual logic of progressivism. A social libertarian differs from the liberal. But he too disenchants. Lifestyle freedom is the eternal project, from which there can be no rest. There are always limits to be overcome so that all that is given can be available for use. The same goes for free-market purists. Goods, capital, and labor need to flow freely so that we can enter into universal prosperity, which does not mean gratitude for any particular thing, but instead the availability of all things for our use. For this kind of uniquely modern conservatism, we must not allow the given to impede the dawning of the better future. For this reason, consistent free-market ideologues who think on a global scale are suspicious of, if not hostile to, national identity.
One can be a conservative libertarian or free-market proponent who recognizes that fallible, fallen human beings won’t ever be able to do away with government, regulation, and other limits on freedom, at least not entirely. In response to the surges of populism that are transforming politics in the West, Lawrence Summers calls for “responsible nationalism.” Ordinary people remain loyal to national heritages, and those who see the wisdom of free-market principles need to cultivate a prudent sense of the limits an enduring patriotic sentiment imposes on globalization. Summers sees this as a limit arising from man’s imperfection. National loyalty is a tendency that must be managed by the wise, not an enjoyment of something sacred that we’re invited to join. His ambitions are tempered. He has been mugged by the reality of populism. But the structure of thought and political sensibility Summers represents remains progressive. There is no place for gratitude and the happy rather than regrettable limits it imposes.
The utilitarianism that pervades our public culture makes it hard not to follow the way of thinking exemplified by Summers. To the degree we make utility the sole measure of good governance, we don’t just make a conservatism of gratitude irrelevant. We make it an enemy of the common good. The principle of utility says we always need to be calculating and recalculating the use-values of our social arrangements and their just distribution. Utilitarianism is an outlook committed to unceasing reform. The principle of utility prohibits rest, for the present moment never yields the greatest good for the greatest number. The same can be said of the principle of equality, which is another future-oriented political project. But life without gratitude and rest is inhumane, which is why the principles of utility and equality are never followed with consistency. Both corrupt our ability to enjoy our families, our nation, and anything else that has a sacred character.
We desire repose and rest in politics. As social animals, we want to be at home in society. Banished from liberal political projects, gratitude and the warm loyalties it evokes return in other political forms. For some, it’s the conviction that the commercial empire of capitalism domesticates aggression and will, once global, put an end to war. Others rest in the conviction that, once fully implemented, multiculturalism will usher in an era of harmony and plenary acceptance of all people, just as they are. In the first half of the twentieth century, many intellectuals were able to find repose in Marxism’s historical certainties. The ideological cast of mind emerges when modern man is deprived of opportunities for cultivating gratitude for the past as a tangible, tradition-laden reality. We rest in false certainties about the future, because we’re denied a past for which we can be grateful.
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton was not drawing attention to the greater utility of inherited wisdom. He was a romantic, not a prudent realist. His England, like my America, participates in the sacred character that always attends that which is “assigned.” Our bodies as male and female are sacred givens, “temples of the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul puts it. A national heritage does not have the same theological status. But it too is assigned to us and thus to be enjoyed for its own sake, not merely used in accord with our plans for the future.
We’re wrong to imagine our public life is unsettled by partisanship, which is a necessary feature of democratic politics. What we lack is rest, and we lack it because in public life we’ve committed ourselves to use, not enjoyment. That’s not true only for progressives. It’s also largely true for conservatives. We think of limits too much as flowing from pragmatic acceptance of recalcitrant realities rather than from a happy affirmation of the sacred character of our particular inheritances. To be human is to be a particular person assigned a particular time and place in the human drama. There’s a curse in this finitude. All of us feel it at one time or another, some more acutely and others less so. But there’s also a blessing, for this “assignment” to this time and place and family and people is the source of our very existence. For this reason, our traditions participate in the gift of existence itself, which is why they have a sacred character. Of political debate there is no end, at least in this life. But with the proper disposition of gratitude, public life can be for us a place of satisfying repose.
We learned something important in 2016: The firepower of our cultural establishment isn’t as great as we imagined. From the very beginning, Trump’s rise posed a threat to the cultural authority of establishment voices. In the first stages of the 2016 election, his surprising popularity challenged the conservative side of the establishment rather than the liberal one. The people who assumed they spoke for conservatism were rallied. National Review dedicated an issue to “Conservatives Against Trump.” I contributed. William Kristol at the Weekly Standard wrote against Trump. Commentary magazine was anti-Trump to the end. With the exceptions of Peggy Noonan and Bill McGurn, to a greater or lesser extent, the team of commentators at the Wall Street Journal treated Trump as a threat to conservative orthodoxy. A parade of Republican grandees pronounced him unacceptable. After Trump triumphed in the primaries, some establishment conservatives talked of finding a third-party candidate. Many leading Republicans refused to attend the convention that formally nominated Trump.
Once he appeared unstoppable, substantial pressure was applied within conservative circles to maintain an anti-Trump consensus. The goal was to deny him any claim on the conservative franchise. As late as May, when it was obvious that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, the only pro-Trump organ of opinion was an obscure website, the Journal of American Greatness. Some of its contributors used pseudonyms out of a justifiable fear of reprisals. After Peggy Noonan commended the site and readership surged, it shut down.
Over the summer and after the Republican convention, most within the conservative establishment made their peace with Trump. Although George W. Bush stalwarts such as Peter Wehner denounced him to the end, it was the Democrats’ turn to tell the world about the unfitness of Donald J. Trump. To do so they employed a political version of the Powell Doctrine: assault with decisive and overwhelming rhetorical force. Liberal commentators bombarded the public with dire pronouncements of the threat Trump posed to, well, everything. Outraged that he seemed able to survive their convincing demonstrations of his depravity, they redoubled their efforts.
The Powell Doctrine is an all-or-nothing approach. As a veteran of Vietnam, Colin Powell recognized that partial and half-hearted war-making gives the impression of weakness, and this impression encourages others to challenge our power. The overwhelming use of force to secure swift and decisive victory reinforces the aura of American invincibility, thus deterring challengers. Our cultural establishment, left and right, worked with the same calculation. In order to restore the proper order of things, Trump, like Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, needed to be destroyed and the world reminded of who was in charge.
In order to implement the Powell Doctrine of cultural warfare, the establishment used the most powerful rhetoric of the postwar era. Trump encourages authoritarianism, and even fascism, we were told. His candidacy licenses sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. These charges, if made by culturally powerful people and institutions, should inflict mortal wounds on any public figure. Larry Summers was ousted as president of Harvard after his faculty adversaries were able to make the charge of sexism stick. No university president can survive if the editorial pages of the New York Times or other mainstream institutions endorse charges of sexism against him. Charges of racism are more fatal still.
Imposing penalties for deviance and bad behavior is one of the roles of cultural authority. In a functioning regime, an establishment serves as a gatekeeper, determining who has permission to enter into the public square as a legitimate contender for power. Yet even after bringing their most powerful weapons to bear on him, our establishment failed to disqualify Trump. Then, on Election Day, he won.
Defeat diminishes power, all the more so when those in power adopt the Powell Doctrine, as our establishment did to stop Trump. Which is why, after November 8, we are beginning to ask questions. Are the editors of the New York Times and the wealthy and well-placed people they represent as powerful as we had imagined? Can voices and positions we once thought politically impossible now emerge in public life? Are the usual cultural authorities no longer fit to determine who can be a “responsible” public leader?
The disappointment, anger, and bitterness liberals feel and express after Trump’s win do not surprise me. Losing isn’t fun. But it’s odd that the liberal establishment is continuing with the Powell Doctrine. Our cultural and political mandarins were unable to prevent Trump from becoming president. Given the Republican control of Congress and Trump’s indifference to their criticisms, they are unlikely to impede his capacity to govern. To make matters worse, their biting rhetoric (“undermined critical democratic norms,” “idiocracy”) lowers the bar. Trump need not govern well in order to discredit those who are using their cultural authority to try to discredit him. He need only govern in a somewhat reasonable, more or less sane fashion that does not overthrow the Constitution. Putting more chips on the table increases the risk of losing everything.
As a religious conservative, I doubt Donald Trump shares my convictions, though perhaps I am wrong. Time will tell. In any event, my religious and moral convictions are not guarantees of good governance. Well-meaning leaders can make a mess out of things if they lack prudence and self-discipline. Again, time will tell whether Trump is able to exercise these virtues or can do without them.
This makes me agnostic about the Trump presidency, which I think is the most reasonable disposition for those with a generally conservative political outlook. (A liberal has good reasons to dread Republican control of Congress and the presidency.) A year ago, I regarded him as a celebrity looking to burnish his brand, a pseudo-candidate who would soon disappear from the scene. I was wrong. During the long march to the White House, Trump outmaneuvered his opponents, which is not something I thought he could do. To nearly everyone’s surprise, he defeated the Clinton machine by a strategy of his own devising rather than the one championed by Republican electoral consultants and experts. Given the ways he has confounded our expectations, why should we imagine we can predict the success or failure of his presidency?
But of this I am convinced: Trump’s victory offers an opportunity for religious conservatives. The cultural and political elites in our society, especially those on the left (but not only on the left), have become decidedly anti-Christian, at least insofar as Christians continue to cleave to Christianity. Their use of the Powell Doctrine to defeat Trump failed, and in failing diminished them. It is now possible to say things in public that the New York Times editors and their readers thought they could discount, discredit, and police. Let’s exercise that freedom. Let’s speak theologially and forcefully.
St. Thomas in China
In late November, First Things sponsored a two-day workshop in China for graduate students. The topic was Thomas Aquinas and medieval philosophy. Historian of science and medieval philosophy William Carroll lectured on Thomistic natural philosophy and the doctrine of creation. Fr. Thomas Joseph White, well-known to regular readers, outlined the basic principles of St. Thomas’s metaphysics and arguments for the existence of God. Thomistic moral philosophy was covered by Fr. Michael Sherwin of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
The workshop was held at Wuhan University, located on a vast, park-like campus. It’s not as meticulously maintained as Stanford, perhaps, but has an equal natural beauty. The graduate students, more than twenty in number, came from the elite universities in China, which include Wuhan University. Their command of English is impressive. Some are doing master’s theses or doctoral dissertations on medieval topics; others are undertaking comparative study of Confucian and Western philosophy.
China is a long way from the United States. I was struck, however, by the commonality of philosophical concerns. Fr. White explained why human beings constitute a particular natural kind—rational animals. A number of students probed this claim. One asked whether artificial intelligence could be developed to the point where a robot could be “human.” Another pressed the challenge of modern scientific materialism. Still another brought forward David Hume’s skeptical doubts about the cogency of our concepts of causality and substance, both indispensable for Thomistic metaphysics.
As Fr. White answered with his usual intelligence and aplomb, I found myself thinking that China, like the West, faces a metaphysical deficit. We have developed powerful scientific cultures and extraordinary technological capabilities. Wuhan is a vast city of ten million that is building thirty-story apartment buildings by the dozens. The city’s infrastructure is new and expanding. One feels the beating pulse of commerce, even in the splendid isolation of Wuhan University’s bucolic campus. Yet the vocabulary of meaning recedes, becoming less and less accessible.
By the end of the workshop, I concluded that these young Chinese intellectuals are ahead of those of us in the West. China has an ancient culture. I visited a nearby archeological museum. It featured remarkable and sophisticated artifacts from 1500 b.c. The region around Wuhan has been the site of a continuous civilization for more than three millennia. Yet China is also hyper-modern. Marxism is based on a materialist philosophy of history that promises an ideal future: communism, the withering away of the state, and the final flowering of our full human potential. That promise has become empty, which means that, in today’s China, Marxism’s explicit materialism now mixes with capitalism’s tacit materialism in potent ways. Our society, by contrast, does not confront materialism directly. We have an elaborate discourse of freedom that purports to show how materialism liberates. Sex is just sex, we say, and so we need not moralize it. In this and other ways, the West averts its gaze from the nihilistic implications of our empire of utility, a world we share with China, one without natural kinds, substances, or final causes.
The talented young Chinese people whom I met at the workshop are beneficiaries of the remarkable economic transformation of China. They frequent espresso bars and dream of studying in America. They’re modern, wanting to enjoy a world with expanding horizons. Yet they do not seem complacent. China is not poor, at least not the China of the talented and aspiring class they represent. But it is not drowsy with wealth, nor is it as thoroughly medicated by pleasure-seeking as our society. The nihilism they sense in post-Marxist China isn’t under the palliative care of pseudo-idealisms such as “social justice,” environmentalism, and other causes. There is no masking incense of identity politics. The Chinese graduate students in philosophy whom I met therefore have advantages over those of us in the West. They are more aware that an a-religious, a-metaphysical society driven by technology and commerce—one not so different, spiritually, from ours—faces deep and profound questions. And unlike many in the West, they seem willing to consider answers.