I think Stephan Pastis, in this strip from this past Valentine’s Day, has gotten a lead on what this election is really about. Bill Curry made a similar point in Salon (with less clarity in far more words, as my father-in-law pointed out) with an article titled “‘It’s the corruption, stupid’: Hillary’s too compromised to see what Donald Trump understands.” Curry’s subhead argues, “The key 2016 issue is outrage over a rigged system by special interests.” I think the article is weakened by his predetermined partisan animosity to the Citizens United decision, which causes him to misread it in some important ways, but his essential point (and Pastis’) is correct as far as it goes. As he says,
Voters [in 2008] knew the problem wasn’t “partisan gridlock” but a hammerlock of special interests. . . .
Clinton bristles at any implication she’d ever stoop to a policy quid pro quo. I don’t think she would. But that’s not how soft corruption works. Politicians spend more time talking to their donors than to their children. As in all intimate relations, each learns to see the world through the other’s eyes. It affects everyone: pollsters, policy advisers, reporters, pundits.
The limitation in Curry’s analysis is that he sees this almost entirely in economic terms, through the materialistic and technocratic lens held in common by classical Marxism and contemporary capitalism. What he’s unable (or unwilling) to see is that the developing crisis—which was described much more insightfully in Salon a few months ago in an interview with the Rev. Dr. Chris Hedges, as I noted at the time—is far broader and deeper than mere concern for material well-being. R. R. Reno powerfully describes the real issue in an essay in First Things which is, unfortunately, almost totally behind their paywall. He begins by saying,
The rise of populism in Europe—and here in the United States by way of Donald Trump—is a rebellion against postmodern weightlessness. Political commentators are right to point out voter concerns about immigration, economic distress caused by globalization, and the technocratic establishment that holds them in disdain. But underneath these concerns lies a metaphysical disquiet.
A nation is united by a shared loyalty. We read a great deal about income inequality and the growing wealth gap between today’s meritocratic winners and everybody else. But we’ve also been through a long season of cultural dissolution, or at least cultural loosening. The result has been an expanded lifestyle freedom (that mostly benefits the meritocratic elite). Yet it’s less and less clear what’s at the center of our common life. Although our tradition of individualism can blind us to this loss, it’s the dark center around which so many of our current concerns revolve.
Populism is a response to this vacuum more than a movement of economic grievances, or even anti-immigrant sentiment. It reflects a concern that our common life lacks metaphysical dignity: There’s no longer something greater than utility or some other bloodless good capable of binding us together strongly enough that the rich and powerful remain accountable.
As he goes on to argue,
In a world being transformed by economic globalization and a cultural revolution that exalts individual desires and choices, the driving questions are Where do I belong? and Who stands with me?
Reno appeals to the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’ distinction “between Gemeinschaft, a shared community of meaning, and Gesellschaft, the marketplace and other modes of social organization we adopt to promote our interests and maximize utility.” The drive of our elite culture for the last half-century has been to break down, undermine, and marginalize Gemeinschaft because they get in the way of the self-determination of the rich and powerful, constraining their ambitions and restraining their assertions of power. This has been true on the political Right as well as on the Left. On one hand, fiscal conservatives have withered the Reagan Revolution down to “lower taxes, less regulation,” reducing the political and philosophical case for smaller government down to “It’s your money!” On the other, social conservatives have made their case not in communitarian terms (because that’s too close to “communist”), defending a thick culture and communities of meaning, but in individualistic terms of rights and entitlement.
That can work for a while, especially if the economic tide is rising. When that tide begins to ebb, however (and it has been ebbing for a while now), it produces an anxiety which cannot be quelled by technocratic promises. As a consequence,
Ordinary people are awakening to the decline in Gemeinschaft, which leads to a sense of isolation and vulnerability—and a suspicion, often accurate, that one’s betters are no longer loyal to a common project that includes them.
It’s not just that the system is rigged, as Curry says; it’s that the whole culture is rigged. I have a real problem with “take back our country” language when it’s aimed by one party at the other—but when it comes to our elites, it’s a whole different matter. Unfortunately, it seems that every time “we the people” try to take back our government from our rulers, the people we send get co-opted by the system. We vote for people who we think will be loyal to us, and the next time we look, they’ve been assimilated.
This is why the Democratic Party could conceivably end up with a presidential nominee who was never a member of the party until he decided to seek its presidential nomination, and who in fact “has long excoriated it in unsparing language.” This is also, more importantly, the wind beneath Donald Trump’s wings. If he were a normal politician, the perception that he hates pretty much everybody would make him unelectable. For him, it’s actually a political asset, because it supports his primary political appeal: the conviction among his supporters that he will not be assimilated.
This is an important point, and I want to make it carefully. In my judgment, neither Donald Trump nor his campaign, nor his supporters, are really about hatred or bigotry. That’s not the energy behind his rise. On the one hand, I don’t believe Trump is racist, sexist, or xenophobic. All those things require actual principles, however vile those principles might be. Rather, I believe he’s an egoist, a solipsist, and a narcissist. Where Bill Clinton was serially sincere—he generally meant what he was saying in the moment, he just didn’t always let that moment bind any future moments—Trump is serially indifferent. For him, everything truly is about “the art of the deal.” Everything is a negotiation, and the only thing that matters to him in any given moment is what he thinks will help him achieve the outcome he wants. Truth, justice, principle, and the like are all important only if they help you cut the deal. Everything is up for discussion, and everything is for sale (at the right price). No statement of principle from Trump should be taken any more seriously than a vote of confidence from the late George Steinbrenner, who was the same sort of man with the same sort of approach to “winning” at life. (Which sparks the thought that a Trump White House would probably bear a strong resemblance to the Yankees of the “Bronx Zoo” era.)
On the other hand, while some of Trump’s supporters are clearly bigots (David Duke comes to mind), most of them aren’t. Believe me, I know a lot of them (and see a lot of their posts on Facebook), and most Trump voters aren’t cheering his comments on Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly because they’re racist, xenophobic misogynists. Obviously, they aren’t terribly offended by his statements, but they don’t necessarily agree with them, and some even feel some need to apologize for Trump on occasion. They cheer him for his verbal brutality anyway because here is someone who will say something that all the elites will hate and not care that they hate him for it: he won’t be assimilated and can’t be co-opted because he doesn’t give a @$&#^!. This is proof that if they elect Trump, the Trump they voted for will be the Trump they get—which is, admittedly, a rare thing to be able to believe about any political candidate these days.
We see here just how desperately many of us want a candidate who will be “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” to the point that many are willing to sacrifice principle for the sake of authenticity. That would make sense for a St. Bernard, a Luther, a Burke, a Wilberforce, a Jackson, a Webster, or someone else of high character; it would make sense if the sacrifice was merely a matter of differing principles, as it might be if I decided to vote for Bernie Sanders. To sacrifice principle for authenticity to support Trump, however, is a devil’s bargain. On this point, Gina Dalfonzo’s insightful piece “Nikabrik’s Candidate,” to which I’ve linked twice before, actually doesn’t go far enough. Dalfonzo writes,
Tired of waiting for Aslan—who may be nearer than we think—we turn elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, just as long as he’s good to us and gives us what we want. Hatred is a perfectly acceptable weapon, as long as it’s “on our side.”
I don’t think it’s just a matter of hatred as a weapon here; that at least sees hatred as a bad thing, though insisting that there are times when it’s appropriate. Rather, Trump’s supporters are affirming hatred as a good thing, taking his expressions of hatred as evidence that he is worthy of their support. It does matter that our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, because that proves that he’s on our side—that he’s really our candidate. So he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks; at least that means he won’t care what anyone in Congress, on the Supreme Court, or in the media thinks, and they won’t be able to influence him. He might be a lunatic, but he’ll be our lunatic. And maybe, just maybe, if we elect him, he’ll give us a chance to take back our country from the people (in both parties) who are running it, and it really will be our land again. Berkeley Breathed’s Opus captures this perfectly
I get that; but there are limits. There are always limits. As I said before,
We aren’t told where Nikabrik got the idea of raising the White Witch, but the fact that he called a hag and a werewolf his friends gives us a pretty good indication. He’s corrupt, but they are corruption.
This is a critical distinction. Nikabrik thinks he and his “friends” are on the same side, but they know better. He’s being played for a fool and a dupe by beings which are preying on his fears—literally, spiritually, feeding on them, drawing energy from them to strengthen themselves. He believes they will stay on his side; he fails to realize that they have no side but their own. He thinks that if the White Witch was comparatively good to the Dwarfs before, that means that a resurrected White Witch would be the same. Loyalty is the last virtue he has left—he has sacrificed all the others on its altar—so he fails to understand that the power-hungry are loyal to no one and nothing but their own appetite. If the White Witch treated the Dwarfs better than others, that was because it happened to suit her purposes to do so, not because she cared a whit about the Dwarfs one way or the other. Nikabrik is too committed to his own people to see that.
Such are the dangers of populism; such are the seductions of the demagogue.
Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, is corruption. He’s corrupting his followers, and he’s corrupting the body politic. He’s not just making evil acceptable because it’s “on our side,” he’s teaching people to call evil good. He’s feeding spiritually on the fears of thousands and thousands of people who have begun to realize that “[their] betters are no longer loyal to a common project that includes them,” promising that he will be different—and the bitter irony and breathtaking cynicism of that promise is that Trump has never been loyal to that project, or indeed to anyone or anything but himself. He’s the classic abuser, preying on the fear of people who desperately want to believe that this time the lie will be truth.
To this, the church needs to stand up with the words of Psalm 146 in its mouth: “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” We need to proclaim the truth that there is only one who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and he is the only one who can answer the “metaphysical disquiet” that more and more people feel. Our nation elected one false messiah eight Novembers ago. I hope we don’t do it again this November.