Nothing has been settled. As of this morning, votes are still being tabulated and the results of the November 3 election remain indeterminate. It looks like Joe Biden may have won. Yet no one knows when, or if, there will be an uncontested winner.
Beyond the election itself, the question of the future of the American regime remains unsettled. No presidential election will be able to resolve the issue, however, because our problem is deeper than politics—deeper even than culture.
Many of us who grew up in the 1960s and who outgrew its madness have watched the left become increasingly virulent with each passing decade. We recall with trepidation Marxism’s promise of an unalienated, Edenic world without scarcity, in part because the collapse of Marxism after 1989 did not end the leftist dream of destroying America’s liberal institutions. The longing to destroy the existing state of things runs deep on the left.
Postmodern thought, which emerged in the aftermath of Marxism’s collapse, had its origins in Nietzsche’s thought, and seemed to be something entirely new, perhaps even a welcome break from Marx’s ferocious certainty; yet it turned out to be even more hostile than Marxism was. Postmodern thought rejected the idea that history has a meaning, that lurking within our flawed and broken world is a promise yet to be fulfilled. It undermined liberal America not by offering an alternative meaning of history, but by declaring that there was none to be found. Its goal was not purity and unification, but the destruction of the longing for these naïve fictions. Although its aim was different than that of Marxism, postmodernism was no less ferocious in attacking America’s increasingly fragile institutions and self-understanding.
Postmodernism still lingers in the corridors of academia, but the great threat now facing America is identity politics, the third leftist wave since the 1960s. Identity politics, unlike postmodernism, does propose that history has a meaning. That meaning can be stated in a simple phrase, which is the cornerstone of the current Democratic party: “the purpose of politics is to redeem the innocent victims, and to scapegoat those who were their transgressors.” Hence #MeToo, and BLM, and Save The Planet, and a host of other hysterical cries to redeem the world from stain, but which always seem to give us, instead, an ever-expanding state apparatus that wants to control the innocents by “protecting” them and to cure the deplorables of their irredeemable ideas—or scapegoat and purge them if they do not recant. History marches in the direction of protecting the pure and cancelling the impure. That is identity politics.
Marxism could never take hold in America because Americans believed in private property. Because property is the cornerstone of our republic, and cannot be removed, Marxism failed. Postmodernism could never really take hold in America because Americans believe that history has a meaning—and even that America has a special place in history. The reason identity politics has taken hold is because Americans suffer deep and abiding guilt, from two main sources: Christianity itself, and the legacy of slavery in this country. What the left could not do through Marxism or postmodernism, it now is doing through identity politics—namely, undermining every institution and every venerable historical memory in America.
Many readers of First Things, myself included, voted for Donald Trump in 2020—with varying degrees of internal doubt about his character and fitness for the presidency. We did so because we have watched identity politics scapegoat anyone who opposed it, and because we see it as the greatest threat yet to the future of our country, precisely because it uses guilt to destroy America. Arguments do not matter to identity politics; all that matters is whether you have a right to speak—which is to say, whether you are a member of an identity group of “innocent victims.” Donald Trump did not have a right to speak. He spoke anyway. Boldly. Often badly. He was a white heterosexual male who never felt guilty. How could he? His religion was the one formed by Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking. Success, not guilt, organized his world. Identity politics guilt was for losers. He was unmoved by guilt—and was hated by the left because he was unmoved.
Donald Trump was someone who, literally, could not exist in the world identity politics constructs. That is why the left needed “Russian collusion” to explain his election in 2016. Russian collusion was the deus ex machina that made it possible for Trump to infiltrate their world. The left had to destroy Trump if identity politics was to continue its reign of perverted righteousness. Many of us saw that clearly. That is why we voted for him. We wanted to contribute to the end of its reign.
Whether he loses or wins the election, Donald Trump and others like him who are strangely immune to the scapegoating efforts of the left will not be enough to end the identity politics reign of righteousness. The task is deeper than politics, deeper than what our presidents can say or do. Deeper even than culture. The task—dare I say it—is religious. Identity politics is a profound deformation of Christianity, a ghastly and crippled derivative that seeks the redemption of the world through the scapegoating of one group by another. For the moment, it has in its sights heterosexual white males. It will not stop there. White women will be next; followed, I suggest, by “heteronormative” black men. Like all revolutionary movements, it will eventually come for its early proponents, in a final reign of terror.
How does the current terror end? The identity politics reign of righteousness will end when we return to the orthodox Christian understanding that only the divine scapegoat, Christ, can take away the sins of the world. That insight once transformed the world. It can do so again.
Joshua Mitchell is the author of American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, which will be published on November 17.
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