Michael Moore has the best one-line summary of the presidential campaign. In an interview with Chuck Todd, Moore called Trump a “human Molotov cocktail that [voters] get to go into the voting booth on November 8th and throw into a political system that has made their lives miserable.”
As with most Molotov-tossing, it’s not clear what the target is or how much damage voters can inflict. No matter who’s elected, it’s unlikely that the next president will alter American politics in any fundamental way.
As John Milbank and Adrian Pabst put it in their new book The Politics of Virtue, contemporary political culture is the product of a convergence of two strains of liberalism: a leftist cultural libertarianism that took off during the 1960s and 1970s, and a rightwing free-market liberalism that reached its apogee with the Reagan-Thatcher alliance.
It was the genius of Bill Clinton to weave the two liberalisms into one. A “New Democrat” is as relentlessly globalist as she is fanatically pro-choice and pro-LGBT. Whether Clinton recognized it or not, he hit on a coherent public philosophy. Though they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both strains of liberalism are founded on a concept of freedom as the emancipation of individual choice.
Since the 1990s, this has become an all but unquestionable global consensus, and neither presidential candidate is going to disrupt it. Hillary Clinton won’t. Her husband invented it, and she was very present at its creation. Clinton can’t imagine any reasonable adult questioning the world Bill made. Her cluelessness about the national mood is as breathtaking as Trump’s self-congratulation.
Combustible as he is, Trump won’t blow it up either. Much to the delight of his supporters, he’s spooked media and political elites all over the world with his anti-globalist pledges on trade and immigration and his calculated flouting of PC conventions. But, as he constantly reminds us, he’s an international businessman. He threatens to impose tariffs, but I doubt he wants a trade war. He may improve U.S. trade deals and inhibit illegal immigration, but most of the damage to American industry over the past half-century is beyond the capacity of any president to repair.
The tell is Trump’s comfort with cultural liberalism, staid teetotaler though he is. After he proved his GOP bonafides by awkwardly mouthing pro-life words, he hasn’t said much about abortion. It’s hard to know whether or not to take his Supreme Court shortlist seriously. Roe will survive a Trump presidency. So will Obergefell, which, unlike Obamacare, Trump considers a fait accompli. He short-circuited the system by cleverly turning his opposition to Muslim immigration into a pro-gay stance.
A social conservative he ain’t, but that doesn’t mean the Trump bomb is meaningless for social conservatives. Pope Francis isn’t the only one to observe that a nation that produces a spectacle like this can’t be healthy. With so much shrapnel flying, with so many settled conclusions being questioned, Christians have a rare opportunity to take stock and ask some basic questions about our polity.
We might ask: Are gay marriage and legalized abortion deviations from American values, or expressions of them? Can we disentangle the two strains of liberalism? Can we defend free markets without endorsing free love? What does “freedom” mean?
Since it cannot acknowledge any good beyond itself without ceasing to be liberal, liberalism inevitably becomes the measure of everything. Can our double liberalism elude the totalitarian logic at its heart? Can liberalism tolerate pockets of illiberalism, communities that deliberately renounce the ideology of absolute free choice? Or will everyone everywhere be forced to conform?
We might rethink the relationship of religion and politics. Do the “mediating institutions” that buffer individuals from the state have any force without a vibrant public church to sustain them? Do we need to be a Christian society to sustain religious liberty, as R. R. Reno argues in his splendid Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society?
Can politics be humane without recognizing that human beings are souls? Are campaigning and voting the be-all and end-all of Christian political action, or are we better off diverting some of those dollars and hours to less flashy projects that have the potential to leaven political culture over the long haul?
Churchill is reputed to have said it first, but it came into contemporary politics through that old Clintonian, Rahm Emmanuel: Never let a good crisis go to waste. Good advice for 2016. The Trump cocktail might yet blow open a serious discussion of a politics beyond liberalism.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author of Gratitude: An Intellectual History(Baylor, 2014), Traces of the Trinity (Baker, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), andThe End of Protestantism (Baker, forthcoming).