In the first three installments of my look at the election of Donald Trump, who as of today is America’s 45th president, and how it marks the waning of the republican ideology that has sustained much of American life since the late 18th century. In the last installment, I took at look at Rod Dreher’s idea of “the Benedict Option,” and why it might and might not be a good idea for those Christian communities seeking to preserve their heritage and beliefs from an increasingly secular society. In this last post, I want to try my hand at predicting (egad!) what a Trump presidency might portend for the future of those types of communities, as well as for the country as a whole.
United in Division
If you recall my first post, it rested upon the idea that the essential aspect of American republican ideology was an extreme valorization of independence. The reason I say Trump’s election marks a great shift is that politicians of both major political parties have developed a politics of dependence over the past sixty or seventy years, but the rhetorical inheritance of republican ideology–“liberty” and all that–have prevented this from being proclaimed openly. What make Trump transformative is that he not only practices a politics of dependence–i.e., acting as a strongman on behalf of his dependents–but he proclaims it openly. And if you doubt me, take a look at his inaugural address, which mentions “protection” repeatedly.
All of this horrifies Republican commentators such as George Will and others, but it is nothing new. It is clear that Barack Obama also acted as a patron for “dependent” clients: in his case, minorities groups (blacks, hispanics, gays, etc.) who felt threatened by their fellow citizens. That’s what the whole push for gay rights is really about, protection. (I’m not saying this is necessarily based on an accurate understanding of their position in society, just that this is the actual reason for most LGBTQ policies.) Harassing the opponents of one’s clients is part of the deal: hence the efforts to criminalize opposition to gay rights, gay marriage, etc. And there can be little doubt this is part of the reason so many Evangelicals voted for Trump, despite his obvious lack of religious conviction. More to the point, this type of patron-client relationship has existed in American politics at least since the time of Martin Van Buren’s machine in New York in the 1820s, if not earlier. What is new is not the actual practice, but the acceptance of it as a legitimate way of conducting public affairs by what appears to be a majority of American citizens. And so, in way, we are so torn by conflict not because of what divides us but because we all implicitly agree on the form our political life should take. And this form, strictly speaking, is one which is no longer republican in a meaningful sense.
The Wages of Dependence
As I write this final post, there is a tempest brewing over the first measures of a Trump presidency–his executive order concerning refugees. This is the type of thing that I started this blog to ignore, in order to focus on eternal verities, so I had best explain myself as to why I am addressing this whole subject now. I am a Catholic Christian, and the most distinctive thing about this belief is that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, truly became man, and yet remained truly God. While we are in this world, we suffer all manner of evil, and yet be at peace. I cannot ignore what is going on around me, as much as I want to. But I can do one thing: as Pascal wrote, our first duty is always to think clearly, and in this case, to think clearly about how we may still focus on our eternal destiny in the midst of such turmoil.
And so, what will be the consequences of this “politics of dependence” as I have termed it, and how should a thinking person respond to it? Well, first of all, much of what this amounts to is already present; the shit storm over the Syrian refugees is a good example of it. For a long time, at least since the 1960s, the middle classes have been utilizing under privileged groups as proxies for their own political battles. The whole brouhaha over the working classes during the election is a great example of this: most of Trump’s supporters were, depending on how you define it, middle class. And yet the problems of the white working class became a rallying cry for those who feel their middle class security threatened by economic, cultural and legal change going on around them, and have been used a symbol by the new Trumpian right to bash the left as upatriotic, unsympathetic to the plight of their fellow countrymen. Of course, the left has been doing this for decades with black Americans, making them symbol and source of all the evils in American life. In short, our politics depends upon rhetorically identifying a dependent group, identifying with them, and convincing enough of our fellow citizens that, unless they choose “our” policies (whoever “we” happens to be) we will suffer the fate of those dependent groups. Again, this has been going on for quite awhile. What is different now is that much of the middle class–I define that term broadly–now feels so insecure that they fear they lose their economic or social status, and so now are willing to cede much of the actual practice of self-government to patrons who promise to protect them.
This new instability has so many sources, it would be pointless to try and enumerate them here. They are economic, cultural, even spiritual; perhaps it is the consequence of living in a society so (in theory) committed to openness, mobility, to the idea that you can go grab what you want, obstacles be damned, that this has finally created the psychological condition where the vast majority feel as if they are able to get what they want or already have it but feel like it could be taken from them at any moment economic, legal or cultural powers beyond their control. Whatever the case, it is clear that many believe that some sort of patronage is required to maintain the political and legal independence that was once taken for granted. How does that affect those of us whose primary goal is eternal life?
I have already discussed Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” in the last post, and I can only reiterate here what I think the fatal flaw in it is. Dreher seems is desperate to believethat you can manage a different way of life–different culturally, morally speaking–without the political patronage of, well, people like Trump. Trump is of course not really much of a Christian, prone to reckless behavior, and likely to involve his Christian supporters in policies that compromise their faith–again, the executive order is a good example, though I am myself am troubled more by the lack of competence in it, rather than its morality, which I think can be defended. But I do not think the types of “traditionalist” communities Dreher and others have in mind can avoid this. I firmly believe their way of life will be too off putting to the vast majority of Westerners to attract much of a following any time in the near or distant future, unless major changes occur in Western society almost over night, changes of a cataclysmic nature. I do not see this happening, and thus I am guessing that such communities will be distinct minorities going forward, and hence, dependent politically and socially for their survival on political alliances.
I imagine this means something like Dr. Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society in the UK, has suggested might be the future of the Church. I suspect something like Shaw’s idea that the Western Church will have to be organized around the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy (the old Latin Mass) will be true of traditionalist communities more generally. It will take something very specific, very concrete for them to hold together, something that will mark them out as distinctive–that, and some sort of powerful political patron. In this sense, I suppose, I agree with Rabbi Sacks: the future for Christians in the West will look a lot more like the fate of Jews in, say, medieval Europe, when Christian bishops or kings sometimes acting as protectors. For these communities now, it means dealing with people like Trump. His belligerence, recklessness, megalomania and disregard for the rule of law are a danger to all, even if Hilary Clinton and her cultural allies were a more direct threat to traditional religious believers (which they are, and still remain). But Trump has delivered thus far, so early on in his administration, to pro-lifers and religious voters. As long as he needs their votes, he will probably continue to do so. Otherwise, he is a loose cannon that cannot be trusted. But as long as he can, he will fight for his clients, and religious believers should have no illusions about the dangers or the necessity of such alliances. It is probably true that in the long run this type of politics will contribute to a more “authoritarian” bent to our politics, although perhaps one of the more “everyday authoritarian” variety that this essay astutely recognizes. I am not suggesting that people should go all in and become ardent Caesarists, but they should recognize that the nature of the dangers and temptations they will face under this new dispensation are different from those of the republican era which is now past. Among these dangers will be persecution, as these traditional communities will not be able to hide behind its patrons all the time. At other times, it may be simply being forced to do things to retain the loyalty of their political protectors that they had rather not do. But the greatest danger of all is that they will succumb to the anger that has driven Trump’s rise–much of this anger is justified in my opinion, but all one has to do is consider the history of the far left (especially the cultural left) in the past fifty years to see how justifiable anger can shade ever so easily into an all consuming rage that makes no distinctions between true evils that cannot be tolerated and minor grievances. Vigilance against these and other will be the price of preserving those beliefs, and the belief that the ultimate stakes in life are not determined by history or some sort of material determinism, but by our eternal choice between life and death. Perhaps sometime in the distant future, our communities may regain the independence that American republicanism provided it with. Perhaps not. But for the time being they will have to adapt to a very new, and very daunting world.